The Internet Archive has reached a new milestone: 2 million. That’s how many modern books are now in its lending collection—available free to the public to borrow at any time, even from home.
“We are going strong,” said Chris Freeland, a librarian at the Internet Archive and director of the Open Libraries program. “We are making books available that people need access to online, and our patrons are really invested. We are doing a library’s work in the digital era.”
The lending collection is an encyclopedic mix of purchased books, ebooks, and donations from individuals, organizations, and institutions. It has been curated by Freeland and other librarians at the Internet Archive according to a prioritized wish list that has guided collection development. The collection has been purpose-built to reach a wide base of both public and academic library patrons, and to contain books that people want to read and access online—titles that are widely held by libraries, cited in Wikipedia and frequently assigned on syllabi and course reading lists.
“The Internet Archive is trying to achieve a collection reflective of great research and public libraries like the Boston Public Library,” said Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of the Internet Archive, who began building the diverse library more than 20 years ago.
“Libraries from around the world have been contributing books so that we can make sure the digital generation has access to the best knowledge ever written,” Kahle said. “These wide ranging collections include books curated by educators, librarians and individuals, that they see are critical to educating an informed populace at a time of massive disinformation and misinformation.”
The 2 million modern books are part of the Archive’s larger collection of 28 million texts that include older books in the public domain, magazines, and documents. Beyond texts, millions of movies, television news programs, images, live music concerts, and other sound recordings are also available, as well as more than 500 billion web pages that have been archived by the Wayback Machine. Nearly 1.5 million unique patrons use the Internet Archive each day, and about 17,000 items are uploaded daily.
Presenting the (representative) 2 millionth book
Every day about 3,500 books are digitized in one of 18 digitization centers operated by the Archive worldwide. While there’s no exact way of identifying a singular 2 millionth book, the Internet Archive has chosen a representative title that helped push past the benchmark to highlight why its collection is so useful to readers and researchers online.
On December 31, The dictionary of costume by R. Turner Wilcox was scanned and added to the Archive, putting the collection over the 2 million mark. The book was first published in 1969 and reprinted throughout the 1990s, but is now no longer in print or widely held by libraries. This particular book was donated to Better World Books via a book bank just outside of London in August 2020, then made its way to the Internet Archive for preservation and digitization.
As expected from the title, the book is a dictionary of terms associated with costumes, textiles and fashion, and was compiled by an expert, Wilcox, the fashion editor of Women’s Wear Daily from 1910 to 1915. Given its authoritative content, the book made it onto the Archive’s wish list because it is frequently cited in Wikipedia, including on pages like Petticoat and Gown.
Now that the book has been digitized, Wikipedia editors can update citations to the book and include a direct link to the cited page. For example, users reading the Petticoat page can see that page 267 of the book has been used to substantiate the claim that both men & women wore a longer underskirt called a “petticote” in the fourteenth century. Clicking on that reference will take users directly to page 267 in The dictionary of costume where they can read the dictionary entry for petticoat and verify that information for themselves.
An additional reason why this work is important is that there is no commercial ebook available for The dictionary of costume. This book is one of the millions of titles that reached the end of its publishing lifecycle in the 20th century, so there is no electronic version available for purchase. That means that the only way of accessing this book online and verifying these citations in Wikipedia—doing the kind of research that students of all ages perform in our connected world—is through a scanned copy, such as the one now available at the Internet Archive.
Donations play an important role
Increasingly, the Archive is preserving many books that would otherwise be lost to history or the trash bin.
In recent years, the Internet Archive has received donations of entire library collections. Marygrove College gave more than 70,000 books and nearly 3,000 journal volumes for digitization and preservation in 2019 after the small liberal arts college in Detroit closed. The well-curated collection, known for its social justice, education and humanities holdings, is now available online at https://archive.org/details/marygrovecollege.
Several seminaries have donated substantial or complete collections to the Archive to preserve items or to give them a new life as their libraries were being moved or downsized. Digital access is now available for items from the Claremont School of Theology, Hope International University, Evangelical Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Just like The dictionary of costume, many of the books supplied for digitization come to the Archive from Better World Books. In its partnership over the past 10 years, the online book seller has donated millions of books to be digitized and preserved by the Archive. Better World Books acquires books from thousands of libraries, book suppliers, and through a network of book donation drop boxes (known as “book banks” in the UK), and if a title is not suitable for resale and it’s on the Archive’s wish list, the book is set aside for donation.
“We view our role as helping maximize the life cycle and value of each and every single book that a library client, book supplier or donor entrusts to us,” said Dustin Holland, president and chief executive officer of Better World Books. “We make every effort to make books available to readers and keep books in the reading cycle and out of the recycle stream. Our partnership with the Internet Archive makes all this possible.”
The Archive provides another channel for customers to find materials, Holland added.
“We view archive.org as a way of discovering and accessing books,” said Holland. “Once a book is discoverable, the more interest you are going to create in that book and the greater the chance it will end up in a reader’s hands as a new or gently used book.”
Having books freely available for borrowing online serves people with a variety of needs including those with limited access to libraries because of disabilities, transportation issues, people in rural areas, and those who live in under-resourced parts of the world.
Sean, an author in Oregon said he goes through older magazines for design ideas, especially from cultures that he wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise: “It gives me a wider understanding of my small place in the global historical context.” One parent from San Francisco said she uses the lending library to learn skills like hand drawing to draw characters and landscapes to interact deeper with her child.
The need for information is more urgent than ever.
“We are all homeschoolers now. This pandemic has driven home how important it is to have online access to quality information,” Kahle said. “It’s gratifying to hear from teachers and parents that are now given the tools to work with their children during this difficult time.”
Kahle’s vision is to have every reference in Wikipedia be linked to a book and for every student writing a high school report to have access to the best published research on their subject. He wants the next generation to become authors of the books that should be in the library and the most informed electorate possible.
Adds Kahle: “Thank you to all who have made this possible – all the funders, all the donors, the thousands who have sent books to be digitized. If we all work together, we can do another million this year.”