Wellington Scoop

Real books vs pixels

by Christine Dann
The National Librarian Rachel Esson told us at the end of last month: “We are now in advanced discussions with an overseas digitisation partner.”

In her OPC [Overseas Published Collection] Update on 28 June, she went on to say it was her view that “…digitisation will safeguard New Zealanders’ access to the titles from the OPC now and in the future.”

This strikes Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) as a weird thing to say, when clearly New Zealanders’ access to the books they paid for has been safeguarded ever since the creation of the National Library by keeping them on shelves, in New Zealand. But things were to get even weirder…

…three days later BGA received (via the Official Information Act request process) a copy of the Aide Memoire prepared by Esson for the Minister of Internal Affairs ahead of the Minister’s meeting with BGA representatives on 24 March. In this document (Point 34, pp 6-7) Esson states that

“BGA says that removal of most of the OPC will ‘irreparably damage the National Library’s ability to provide access to the knowledge provided by these books to all New Zealanders ….’. We believe that the new development of donation to Internet Archive as an option should allay these concerns.”

National Library sending 600,000 books to the Philippines to be digitised

Far from allaying our concerns (which Esson would know if she had ever talked to us about it, which she never has) this news has raised huge red flags. If BGA had been advising the government, we would have said that digitising copies of books which you already own outright legally and which require only better storage and retrieval systems to get more use is the last thing you should do. Don’t even think about it!


There are numerous reasons, as follows.

1 It is not legal to digitise books which are still in copyright

Most of the 600,000+ books in the National Library’s Overseas Published Collection (all those published after 1946) currently fall within the 75 year period of copyright restriction which is the law in the USA, where the Internet Archive is located. With two clicks of a mouse, Esson could have discovered what BGA discovered by the same method – that when the Internet Archive began digitising books without permission in 2020, four major publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley and Penguin Random House) lodged a complaint with the US District Court of New York and demanded trial by jury. The plaintiffs allege that

“Defendant IA [Internet Archive] is engaged in willful mass copyright infringement. Without any license or any payment to authors or publishers, IA scans print books, uploads these illegally scanned books to its servers, and distributes verbatim digital copies of the books in whole via public-facing websites. With just a few clicks, any Internet-connected user can download complete digital copies of in-copyright books from Defendant.”

The plaintiffs go on to say:

“The scale of IA’s scheme is astonishing: At its ‘Open Library,’ located at www.openlibrary.org and www.archive.org (together, the “Website”), IA currently distributes digital scanned copies of over 1.3 million books. And its stated goal is to do so for millions more, essentially distributing free digital copies of every book ever written. Despite the ‘Open Library’ moniker, IA’s actions grossly exceed legitimate library services, do violence to the Copyright Act, and constitute wilful digital piracy on an industrial scale. Consistent with the deplorable nature of piracy, IA’s infringement is intentional and systematic: it produces mirror-image copies of millions of unaltered in-copyright works for which it has no rights and distributes them in their entirety for reading purposes to the public for free, including voluminous numbers of books that are currently commercially available.”

The case is still before the Court, going through the discovery phase. The trial is scheduled to start in November. This information could easily have been obtained by Esson as early as 3 June 2020, when US media began reporting on it (see Publishers Sue Internet Archive For ‘Mass Copyright Infringement’) and there is no excuse for not being aware of it by March 2021.

To advise the government that the Internet Archive – or any other digitiser of books which are still in copyright – is a suitable ‘business partner’ for the New Zealand government is to place that government in legal and financial jeopardy. BGA will be writing to the Minister to advise her of this, since the person who should have advised her correctly has failed to do so.

2 All the other reasons

If the National Librarian past (Bill Macnaught) and present (Rachel Esson) had made any real attempt to consult with and listen to the users of the OPC (rather than merely with the management of other libraries, and the officials of librarians’ in-house organisations) before advising the Minister that the books were no longer required, then those users (the students, researchers, writers, historians and creatives of New Zealand, who whakapapa to a wide range of ethnic, national and cultural origins) would have told them in no uncertain terms why they wanted and needed the books to be kept. This is so they can continue to be the resource they have been over the past 50+ years for those who use them to contribute to the cultural and economic development of New Zealand, as per the purpose of the National Library Act 2003.

Such users are indeed few in number – it is very hard to make a living from independent scholarship and writing in a country as small as New Zealand – but that does not make what they do less of a vital contribution to the wellbeing of New Zealand society. If the National Library management had consulted properly with the users it would also have been given a number of other reasons why most of the physical books should be retained and none of them should be digitised.

BGA has a whole series of articles planned on why digitisation has not, will not and can not replace paper books, in which the facts will be spelled out in full. To whet your appetite, here are the bullet point headings:

• Digitisation of library books is a privatisation of public assets and theft of private intellectual copyright.

• Digital formats become obsolescent within decades. The real book ‘format’ has lasted and will last for centuries.

• Readers prefer real books. Peak e-book was passed a few years ago and the numbers of real books being published continues to increase, not decrease.

• Students learn better from real books. Scientific studies of the differences between reading real books and on-line materials shows that both retention and comprehension of the content of real books is superior to that gained from digital texts.

• Scholars need real books. Real books are not just containers of ‘information’ which can be obtained via a digital version. They are physical artefacts which contain content which can not be provided digitally.

• Digitised books have a filthy carbon footprint, and contribute to global heating. The ‘cloud’ in which digital books are stored and from which they are downloaded is a cloud of fossil fuel emissions. Most of the world’s data servers which store books and other data run on electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. Emissions from the Internet as a whole are now equal to those from global aviation (2%) and are due to exceed aviation in the near future. The sustainable thing to do is to use the Internet only for what it is really useful for, and not for unnecessary and inferior uses such as book storage.

• The cost of digital books keeps increasing; the cost of real books decreases with time. Digitising a book which already exists in real form incurs costs. Changing the format in which it exists so that it is still accessible to users every decade or so incurs costs. Storing the books in privately-owned off-shore storage systems incurs costs. Real books never incur format upgrading costs, and the storage costs for publicly-owned real books can and should be managed and kept at reasonable levels by central and local government.

• No digital book will ever increase in value; some real books (such as first editions of notable books) currently held in the OPC are now worth a thousand times or more their original cost. A responsible government would not permit their disposal without at least realising their true value and putting that money towards the purchase of books which are deemed by users to be more important for the National Library to hold.

Enough already? BGA thinks so, and hopes that the National Library management and their Minister will come to their senses before making the biggest mistake ever made in the history of the library.

Christine Dann is an executive member of Book Guardians Aotearoa.

The National Library of New Zealand is in Molesworth Street, Wellington.

DomPost: National Library sending 600,000 books overseas


  1. James, 12. July 2021, 13:06

    Also, could the National Library not learn from the problems that Fairfax Media had with digitizing its photographic collection?

  2. Daniel, 12. July 2021, 20:53

    The Internet Archive is not the evil force BGA suggests it is, it’s an amazing not-for-profit that has saved a huge amount of culturally important material from oblivion. The court case was brought by publishers unhappy with IA’s “emergency library” at the beginning of the pandemic. This was responding directly to the fact libraries were not physically accessible, by allowing multiple copies of a resource to be loaned at the same time. The popular consensus appears to be the court will easily rule in favour of IA (this is information BGA can easily find, for example here ), and there is increasing support for this model of lending. In terms of digital preservation, the BGA’s argument appears to conflate e-books with image scans: the first is more likely to be an opaque or proprietary format with a shelf-life matching the software required to view it; the second is as durable as a physical book (and not being able to access these in the very far future would mean a much greater crisis in computing has occurred, say, societal collapse). Digital preservation is not concerned with e-books.

    Of the reasons presented here, the only one with real weight is the carbon cost of the cloud. At the other end of the scale, calling digitisation of books a theft of intellectual copyright is untrue and does not reflect well on the rest of BGA’s argument.

  3. Michael, 13. July 2021, 11:20

    Thanks Daniel. Why do you say that digitisation of books is not a theft of intellectual copyright, when authors and publishers are making just that point? It is understood that what the Internet Archive is doing is in breach of international copyright conventions. I am sure that the legal suits filed by leading world publishers will expose the threat that this illegal copying poses to writers and publishers everywhere.

    I am glad that you acknowledge the carbon cost of digitising. How is that to be reconciled with the government’s (apparent) aim to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, which continue to increase?

  4. Michael, 13. July 2021, 11:25

    Why should the onus of preventing theft of copyright be placed on the owner of that right? The library says that it will remove any book from digitising if the author asks.
    But that is like saying we will only stop theft if the victim requests it.

    Authors gain no royalties from a book that the Internet Archive has scanned.

  5. Michael, 13. July 2021, 12:14

    The vox article says the opposite of what you said it says, Daniel. Suggest reading it more carefully. In fact it supports BGA’s position and that of authors and publishers everywhere.

  6. Daniel, 13. July 2021, 14:21

    Why is digitisation not a theft of intellectual copyright? Because there is explicit provision for copyright exception by libraries and archives, particularly when books are out of print or in the last decades of their copyright. This is in addition to the US concept of “fair use”, an idea that has been tested many times in the American legal system. This is not a controversial position for the jurisdiction the IA operates in. The National Library has stated the average publication date of the books in question is in the late 1960s.

    It will indeed be interesting to see the outcome of the legal challenge. I think it’s important to clarify the legal case is not at all challenging IA’s digitisation practice, it’s about an alleged copyright breach of a small number of books being simultaneously loaned more times than IA possesses physical copies. It’s true authors gain no royalties from a scanned book, but they also gain no royalties from a library loan (although there is the Public Lending Right for New Zealand Authors payment scheme for authors with 50+ titles but this doesn’t seem relevant to the books being discussed here?).

    I can’t comment on the straw man argument over how this relates to the NZ government’s emissions goals but I look forward to the “whole series of articles planned on why digitisation has not, will not and can not replace paper books”. There’s a case to be made here, for sure, but misrepresenting the important preservation work of the IA is definitely not it.

  7. Hugh Rennie QC, 13. July 2021, 15:43

    “an amazing not-for-profit that has saved a huge amount of culturally important material from oblivion” – in the case of IS’s regular archiving of websites, perhaps. Not so for books. The IA actions actually INCREASE the likelihood of books currently held by many libraries being sent to oblivion – with this being justified by the same reasoning now being used by NatLib. Library collections are organised, catalogued, curated by professional librarians. Scanning these books into IA’s online electronic anarchy will not replicate what we have now.

  8. Daniel, 13. July 2021, 16:11

    Michael, can you please point out the parts of the Vox article I should re-read? I suspect we are talking past each other here so I’d like to understand where you feel I’ve misunderstood that article.
    Hugh, let’s pick this up again in 100 years or so.