August 29, 2011

Universities band together to join Orphan Works Project

Leaders at Cornell, Duke, Emory and Johns Hopkins universities jointly announced last week that they would begin making the full text of thousands of “orphan works” in their library collections digitally accessible to students, faculty and researchers at their own institutions.

Orphan works are out-of-print books that are still subject to copyright but whose copyright holders cannot be identified or located.

With the announcement, the four institutions formally join the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida in a collaborative Orphan Works Project, which aims to identify orphan works that have been scanned and archived in the HathiTrust Digital Library. HathiTrust is a partnership of more than 60 major research institutions working to share, archive and preserve their combined collections of digitized books and journals.

Currently, more than 9.5 million digitized volumes are held by the HathiTrust. No one knows exactly how many of those are orphans, but HathiTrust Executive Director John Wilkin has estimated that it could be as many as half. Of those, most are unlikely to have any surviving person or entity that can claim them.

“We look forward to working with our colleagues on this initiative, which will not only benefit our respective users and our individual institutions but also demonstrate the importance of working collaboratively through HathiTrust to increase access to knowledge,” said Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums at Johns Hopkins.

Anne R. Kenney, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell, said, “We strongly believe in supporting the fair use of orphan works material. It continues our tradition of pushing hard to open up scholarly resources and helping to provide the broadest access possible to them.”

Only books that are identified as orphans through a careful process and are also held in print format by the individual institutions will be accessible through the HathiTrust website, and they will be accessible only to members of their respective communities. Just as most academic libraries allow only authorized patrons to check out books from their print collections, so will online access be restricted to users who can authenticate with their university ID and password. However, if a university library is open to the public, visitors will have access through library computers.

Even with these access restrictions, the Orphan Works Project will greatly improve access to a large amount of scholarly material that has been digitally unavailable due to copyright concerns. According to Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications at Duke, “I think we can expect access to tens of thousands of orphan works within the first year. The speed with which that number could rise will depend on the ability of the community to do the work of identifying orphans.”

“Participating in this collaborative project helps our libraries bridge the divide between print collections, which are physically located in library buildings and storage facilities, and online discovery, browsing and access, which have become essential to the research process,” said Rick Luce, vice provost and director of Libraries at Emory. “Many of these works have tremendous historical and cultural value, and they are an important part of the record of 20th-century scholarship.”

Orphan works have been a major factor in recent legal disputes over the ambitious Google Books project. In March 2011, a federal judge rejected the company’s $125 million class action settlement with authors and publishers, stating that the deal went too far in granting Google the right to make such works accessible online without permission from copyright owners.

Because the Orphan Works Project limits access to members of individual institutions, it adheres to the Copyright Act’s “fair use” provision, which allows limited reproduction of works for scholarly purposes.

“Because they are out of print, many of these materials can be hard to come by,” said Duke’s Deborah Jakubs, the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and vice provost for library affairs. “This effort presents an opportunity to leverage the substantial investment Duke and our partner institutions have already made in our library collections. It will also improve the experience of library users, who can perform full-text searches of these works from their own computers, without having to come to the library in person or wait for off-site materials to be retrieved. It’s a win-win for access and usability.”