'National Emergency Library' lends a hand — and lots of books! — during pandemic

Physical books may be more difficult to obtain for free these days, but the nonprofit Internet Archive is trying to keep digital bookshelves stocked through the end of the national coronavirus crisis.
Physical books may be more difficult to obtain for free these days, but the nonprofit Internet Archive is trying to keep digital bookshelves stocked through the end of the national coronavirus crisis.
Richard Newstead/Getty Images

Concerns over the coronavirus have shuttered public and school libraries around the world, depriving their regular patrons of free access to the Internet, shelter and, of course, books — just when many of them could use them the most.

It's difficult to replicate the manifold services offered by your local public library. But when it comes to keeping bookshelves stocked — digitally, at least — the Internet Archive is offering one compelling alternative: a "National Emergency Library."

The nonprofit group, which has made some 4 million books available online for free, says that it is suspending waitlists for the 1.4 million works in its lending library. The move expedites the borrowing process through the end of June ("or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later") for anybody worldwide who'd like one of those books — be they students, teachers or just average readers bored out of their wits in quarantine.

"The library system, because of our national emergency, is coming to aid those that are forced to learn at home, " Brewster Kahle, the group's digital librarian, said in a statement paired with the announcement. "This was our dream for the original Internet coming to life: the Library at everyone's fingertips."

The Internet Archive says its lending library has focused on digitizing 20th century books — obtained through Marygrove College and other school libraries — that otherwise would not be available with many physical libraries closed to the public. The move has been supported by scores of individuals and schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tom Blake of the Boston Public Library.

The Internet Archive also notes that the other 2.5 million books that readers can access through the group remain just as available as they ever have been, in the public domain, without a waitlist and downloadable in full.

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