Maybe you’ve noticed how things keep disappearing—or stop working—when you “buy” them online from big platforms like Netflix and Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. You can watch their movies and use their software and read their books—but only until they decide to pull the plug. You don’t actually own these things—you can only rent them. But the titanic amount of cultural information available at any given moment makes it very easy to let that detail slide. We just move on to the next thing, and the next, without realizing that we don’t—and, increasingly, can’t—own our media for keeps.
Unfortunately, today’s mega-publishers and book distributors have glommed on to the notion of “expiring” media, and they would like to normalize that temporary, YouTube-style notion of a “library.” That’s why, last summer, four of the world’s largest publishers sued the Internet Archive over its National Emergency Library, a temporary program of the Internet Archive’s Open Library intended to make books available to the millions of students in quarantine during the pandemic. Even though the Internet Archive closed the National Emergency Library in response to the lawsuit, the publishers refused to stand down; what their lawsuit really seeks is the closing of the whole Open Library, and the destruction of its contents. (The suit is ongoing and is expected to resume later this year.) A close reading of the lawsuit indicates that what these publishers are looking to achieve is an end to the private ownership of books—not only for the Internet Archive but for everyone.
The very role and meaning of libraries relies on their right to own books, because books that can expire are books that can disappear permanently—books that can be taken away. There is a cultural, a political, even a civilizational danger in this vulnerability that can’t be overestimated.