Since 2018, preservation services supervisor Anne Conway has spent six hours each week researching the copyright status of online books. She has now completed an outstanding 50,000 assessments as a volunteer for HathiTrust’s Copyright Review Program.
HathiTrust is a not-for-profit collaborative of academic and research libraries—including the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill—that preserves digital copies of more than 17 million books and other materials. When those texts are in the public domain, meaning they are free of copyright restrictions, then HathiTrust makes them accessible online for anyone to read.
Jessica Rohr, member engagement and communication specialist for HathiTrust, says that the participation of library professionals at member libraries is what makes the program such a success.
“We couldn’t do it without them! The work we do to make new items available in the public domain is possible through the dedication of expert reviewers such as Anne,” says Rohr.
Conway says that participating in the program is a way for her to uphold a key pillar of the University Libraries’ strategic framework: ensuring information and resources that scholars and the wider community need are available now and in the future.
“The Library has a mission to be a resource for campus, but I think the Library, especially through HathiTrust, also sees its mission as information in our country and in the world. You feel like you’re doing your one little, tiny part for that.”
It is meaningful work, but it can be complex. While all books first published in the United States before 1928 are in the public domain, reviewers like Conway must apply a rigorous review process to determine whether other texts can be made freely accessible.
That multi-step process includes assessing whether the book matches the project’s legal scope; determining whether its copyright has been renewed; and determining whether the book contains credits, permissions or acknowledgements indicating that the digital file might contain other copyrighted content.
This requires nuance and attention to detail. All copyright reviewers go through an extensive training program before they start evaluating texts, according to the HathiTrust website. Even then, each file has to be assessed by two independent reviewers who must agree on its status before it is made public.
Conway’s commitment helps HathiTrust to make more resources available to everyone. More than 500,000 texts are accessible via HathiTrust thanks to the Copyright Review Program. Conway has personally been part of reviewing more than 30,000 of those items.
“People who end up in the library field care about the broader mission of collecting, organizing and making accessible human knowledge. Anne’s work is an example of that ethos in practice,” says Associate University Librarian for Digital Strategies and Information Technology Tim Shearer.
While she downplays reaching 50,000 reviews, Conway recognizes that the reviewers’ dedication makes an impact. “Think of all the materials that have been opened up because of reviewers volunteering their time.”
Story by Jacob Thompson. Photograph by Robin Gao.