Friday, April 7, 2023

The Battle for Libraries Has begun

So, this is a hard post to write... 

Two weeks ago today, on Friday, March 24, Judge Koeltl issued his decision in the Internet Archive case; you can read the decision online here. It was not good. In fact, it was really bad. Instead of seeking a compromise between the competing interests of the parties involved (profit-seeking by the publishers and promoting the public good by the Internet Archive), the judge ruled in favor of the publishers in every particular.

I still can't wrap my head around it. Especially the judge calling the Internet Archive's library a "commercial" activity. I'm guessing that part will surely be overturned on appeal; if not, it sets a horrifying precedent for any non-profit entity that accepts donations, as the Internet Archive does. But as regards the rest of the judgment, I am not optimistic for what is going to happen. Again and again in this country, we see the interests of corporations outweighing the public good over and over again: in the legislatures, in the courts... and that is what has happened here.

There's been a lot of critical analysis by people better qualified than I am to comment on the legal details of the case. To find out more, I'd recommend reading these items... and if you know of a piece I've missed here, please let me know in the comments or at Twitter (or email
I met Sydney Johnson when she was at the Archive's SF headquarters last Friday, the same day that the judge's ruling came down. But that didn't happen till later in the day. That afternoon, we were having a wonderful time: Brewster took us on a tour of the Archive, and I will never forget him dancing with Dutch author Bette Adriaanse to the music of a 78 record playing on a vintage 1946 jukebox. The KQED photographer Beth LaBerge caught that moment here, and there some more great photos in the article at KQED, including a picture of the Archive's Terracotta Army of Archivists.

It was such a lovely day: I finally got to meet some of my friends and colleagues at the Archive in person, and I left the building even more inspired about the work that the Archive does. I then went back to the East Bay for shabbat dinner with friends there... and when I checked Twitter before going to bed, I found out about the decision.

That was two weeks ago.

Luckily, being in the Bay area on vacation the following week meant I had lots of old friends I could talk with (including friends from 40+ years ago when I first moved to San Francisco and attended Berkeley as an undergraduate). It really helped to be with people who know me well and who could help me think through this difficult moment. I have some plans now for going forward, and I'll share some of those plans here this weekend.

In this post, though, I am saying goodbye to the plans I thought I had.

For the past two years, I have focused all my work on the Internet Archive's books, blogging about them pretty much every day here at this blog. That's over 600 posts. Posts that feature what must be at least a thousand books now, probably close to two thousand. Books about Africa and about the African Diaspora. Books about tricksters. Books for the Anansi Book Club. Beautiful books full of folktales, myths, legends, proverbs, riddles... all the things that I study and care about, things that I want to share with other people.

I really expected that I would spend the next ten or twenty years writing more books like The Reader's Guide to African Folktales at the Internet Archive. I had almost finished writing the next reader's guide (for African Diaspora folktales), but now there's no point in publishing it, unless some kind of miracle transpires in the appeal. The books I had written about will probably become inaccessible for most readers very soon, although I'm hoping the scans will not be destroyed. If I understood the judge's remarks correctly, the Archive should be able to keep the scans online for people with print disabilities. That's something at least!

Meanwhile, there's a rally tomorrow, April 8, at the Internet Archive's headquarters demanding digital rights for libraries, including controlled digital lending. I sure wish I could be there in person, and I will be eagerly looking for news and photos. I've replaced the book slideshows that I previously had in the sidebar of this blog with information about the rally, and I'll update that as events unfold. I'm guessing we will have information soon about what kind of damages the publishers might be awarded and what kind of injunction the judge might be willing to grant while the case works its way through the appeals process.

Doing this work on the Internet Archive's library books has been the most exciting project I have ever participated in, and I'm trying to take what I've learned in these two years to think of other ways to keep on connecting people and books. I'll have more to say about that over the next few days, but for now I just want to say THANK YOU to Brewster Kahle and all the people who have built the Internet Archive's library over the past ten years. YOU ARE MY HEROES, and I know that some way, somehow, we will ultimately build the online library that the world both needs and deserves.

You can find out more at

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