Library Lending Fit for the 21st Century? Controlled Digital Lending in the UK

Recently, an online event was held to discuss the current status and prospects for Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) in the UK. The event was hosted by Chris Morrison and Jane Secker and jointly run by the National Acquisitions Group and ALT Copyright and Online Learning SIG.  I was asked to make some opening comments, which I would like to expand on here.

Research libraries undertake a variety of activities in their support of research, teaching, and learning.  One of the key activities – and has been for centuries – is the lending of library materials to readers and users – and by ‘materials’ I mean both in-copyright and out-of-copyright items, and I also mean more than ‘just’ books.

Over the past few decades, a growing proportion of materials purchased by libraries has been in electronic rather than physical format. This format shift has brought many changes in the way in which we make materials available, and archive and preserve them. We have also moved in many areas from owning materials to leasing or renting them. However, nothing in these shifts affect the fundamental principle that libraries should be able to lend the materials that they have acquired to the communities they serve.

While some have been thinking about issues around Controlled Digital Lending for many years, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we view the digital.  The shutting of university buildings suddenly cut off access to physical copies for a prolonged period of time (most notably in the UK during our first lock-down last year). This lack of physical access shone a powerful spotlight on the compromises that we had been living with in terms of the balance between physical and electronic texts. Pre-pandemic we had rather muddled-through, aware of the problems caused by unsatisfactory and unaffordable business models and terms and conditions that limited use and reuse, but not seeing a clear way through.

The pandemic engendered a shift in the way in which we think about CDL. It begun a move from CDL being seen as a rather theoretical and esoteric topic – discussed and debated mainly by copyright specialists – to increasingly being viewed as a potentially key tool that allows librarians to connect information with readers. We can see this move in at least three areas:

Firstly, there are an increasing number of high-level statements and resources in support of CDL. An example of the former is the strong statement of support for CDL issued this summer by IFLA. And of the latter is the work from the US of the Library Futures Foundation and their Controlled Digital Lending: Unlocking the Library’s Full Potential.

Secondly, there have been technological changes. It is only one example, but I note the news last month from ExLibris of the release of a new tool as part of Alma to enable CDL and to view physical and digital holdings as part of the same collections and not separate.

And thirdly, CDL works and is seen to work. On a large scale, at the start of the pandemic the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library proved to be hugely valuable. As was the Hathi Trust Emergency Library, which was widely used – mainly in the US, but also by at least one UK HE institution. This fortifies the shift in thinking about CDL from a theoretical ‘nice-to-have’ to a concrete tool.

As already noted, lending has been at the heart of what libraries do for centuries now. Controlled Physical Lending of materials is a key activity of (most) RLUK members and of the wider HE and public sectors. Digital Lending needs to takes its place alongside Physical Lending and we need to aim for the time where we speak only of ‘lending’.

So, it was hugely encouraging that so many people come together at the recent event to discuss CDL and begin to identify the next steps that we need to take in the UK to move this forward.

For me, one area is that we need to progress is to de-risk CDL – or at least reduce the perception of risk. Some publishers are keen to issue lawsuits attempting to stop CDL or to rhetorically describe it as a highly risky activity, only one-step removed (if at all) from piracy. We need to challenge that narrative. Controlled Digital Lending needs to become Lending – a reasonable and acceptable activity for any library – HE or public – to undertake.

Dr Emily Hudson from King’s, one of the speakers at the recent event, has written very clearly on whether we can look to CDL as a reasonable activity under UK law or if we need to push for either greater clarity or greater rights. The view of Dr Hudson and her co-author, Paul Wragg, is that there is sufficient leeway in current exceptions in UK copyright law to allow CDL for education purposes and, with some rights stacking, for research.

But it is interesting that a lot of the recent activity around CDL has come from the US, with institutions now looking at how CDL can be used in inter-library loan. The provision of Fair Use clauses in US copyright law gives greater certainty to US universities and allows them to pursue CDL more vigorously than we have been able (or willing) to do so in the UK. Differences in copyright frameworks could result in the US universities moving to a 21st Century model of library lending, while we in the UK are left behind.

The digital offers so many opportunities to libraries and benefits to the people that they serve. We need to ensure we take the opportunity of CDL and realise those benefits – not allow our activities to become narrowed as a result of a format shift and out-of-date copyright frameworks.