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Creating the 21st Century Library (cont’d)

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With 1,700-square-feet of space we can’t position ourselves as rescuing all print. But with something like the Bureau of Indian Affairs records [which the Prelinger Library recently received from another library that was about to discard them], that was very clear. Talk about underreported historical narratives–you can hardly get more underserved than Native American cultural history. There are Bureau documents from the 1870s when white ethnographers lived among Native Americans and wrote, “We think most of the Indian raids on the neighboring white settlement camps are being perpetrated by white settlers dressing up as Indians and robbing their neighbors.” What happened? That idea–that observation–has been buried, dismissed and ignored for 130 years. When you read things like that, it legitimates the act of rescuing these documents and makes it even more urgent to do so.

Copyright has come into play in digitizing works. You were part of the lawsuit Kahle-Prelinger v. Gonzalez that was about orphaned works. Can you explain what the term orphaned works means?

In the United States, everything published prior to 1923 is in the public domain and everything published since 1963 is automatically under copyright. So there’s a grey area between ‘23 and ‘63 where only about 15 percent of all copyrights were renewed. So we’re able to digitize 85 percent of stuff in that 40-year period. Large changes in the law in 1998 extended copyright, so even if the author elects to let their work enter the public domain, the government automatically renews that copyright.

Now copyright is very difficult to opt-out of. It’s life of the author plus 70 years. If the rights-holder no longer exists and the institutional author, say a textbook company, is dissolved, then the copyright laws protect no one. In a lot of cases, works being digitized bring authors new audiences that they didn’t have before. So our argument is that existing copyright renewal laws do a disservice. We want the opportunity to digitally disseminate works that have been abandoned by their authors.

Are there any specific works that you think need to be digitized so they can be available for research?

Textbooks and songbooks. Tour guide books that explain how to go on excursions and investigations. If those were digitized, we could layer a map from 1965 onto a map from 1945 and trace landscape changes. You can do that for earlier years, but history becomes locked up in 1963.

So if an author is deceased and his or her books are out of print, it is still illegal to digitize them, even though there are a dwindling number of physical copies of the work?

Right. That’s tragic. It doesn’t serve the authors. The legislation was devised to serve corporate interests. Yes, there are authors who are selling millions of books who want their copyrights to be held in their family in perpetuity. They should have that right. All we want is to be able to digitize works if we’ve done due diligence to locate an author or a rights-holder and if that rights-holder no longer exists or is supportive of digitizing the work.

Like other librarians, do you see yourself as a defender of civil liberties?

Yes and no. As an unincorporated library, we were never subject to the Patriot Act. In a broad sense, you can view the Prelinger Library as a democratizing project. Pushing history out of dusty corners and making it relevant and usable to people doing work today.

To me the idea of a library as an arcane space and privileged space, a space separate from relevance to everyday life, is wrapped up in the general historical trend of anti-intellectualism. Libraries should be social spaces and idea playgrounds–places where people are free to get excited about ideas.

Aaron Sarver is an independent audio producer and writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Chicago Reader,, and on Free Speech Radio News. For nearly three years he produced and co-hosted the radio program, Fire on the Prairie, which featured interviews with progressive writers and activists, and is archived at

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