Preparation pays off: IU Libraries offers expanded access to HathiTrust Digital Library

It was hard to imagine a world without access to physical books. But then the COVID-19 outbreak became a pandemic, forcing libraries to temporarily close their buildings.

This type of scenario -- where students and faculty can't pull books, videos, film and other items from the shelves of Indiana University's libraries and repositories -- is one that university leaders have invested decades of preparation in. A pandemic is just one catalyst for mobilizing emergency access preservation plans. And the HathiTrust Emergency Temporary Access Service is a new response to a long-considered need.

"We are getting to see that the sometimes invisible efforts are now incredibly valuable and visible to our faculty and students," said Carolyn Walters, Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries and member of the HathiTrust Board of Governors.

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Greg Eismin, circulation desk supervisor at the Herman B Wells Library, assisted last year in sending a few of the thousands of IU Libraries' print books for digitization. The books are returned once scanned. Photo courtesy of IU Libraries

In 2008 as part of a Big Ten Academic Alliance partnership, the university responded to a nationwide digitization request from Google Books, sending truckloads of materials to be digitized and returned. Through this work, IU became one of the founding members of the HathiTrust Digital Library, an online repository for academic and research libraries to archive and search the new digital resources.

The HathiTrust database contains millions of digitized materials, but usually only those in the public domain are fully accessible due to copyright restrictions. All of the items have been indexed for full-text searching, but digitized books still under copyright typically can't be viewed beyond those search results. This preserves the author's legal rights while allowing the researcher enough information to seek out a physical copy.

In March, IU had to close its physical libraries and stop material circulation in response to the pandemic. This created a new opportunity for the HathiTrust Digital Library. Its Emergency Temporary Access Service, or ETAS, permits special full-text access for member libraries that suffer an unexpected or involuntary temporary disruption to print collection circulation. During the time that access to print collections is unavailable, HathiTrust digital items matching the physical collection holdings of IU Libraries are available for full-text reading.

Thierry Veyrié quickly learned the value of access to IU's materials on HathiTrust. Veyrié is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and preparing to defend his dissertation in the fall. When Indiana announced its stay-at-home order, he quickly gathered all of the books from his office so he could continue his research at home. But during a recent Zoom meeting, professor Jason Baird Jackson shared his screen to recommend another source that could be helpful.

"We went to look and find that source, and within minutes we were actually reading from it together," Jackson said. "We had access to the digital version of the physical copy that was in the locked library."

Veyrié said that every time he has a meeting with a colleague or professor, additional sources continue to be suggested. He's grateful that HathiTrust's Emergency Temporary Access Service makes the materials accessible.

"I cannot say enough how important this is, both in terms of making knowledge accessible to the broader public but also to encourage efficient research," Veyrié said.

The emergency access will continue until IU is able to start circulating the print collection materials preserved in the HathiTrust. Access to items is one to one. If IU Libraries holds one copy of a book, one individual may read the full text at a given time. Walters estimates that 47 percent of the millions of books in the university's catalog are now available through HathiTrust Emergency Temporary Access Service for full-text reading access.

"This is a community effort to create a shared repository," she said. "Digitization is a long-term investment, but at this moment we are realizing the value of collaborative commitment to digital preservation."