Library Schools and the Copyright Knowledge Gap

Years from now, once we gain the benefit of perspective fostered by temporal separation, those of us who are concerned about libraries may look back at 2005 and declare it a watershed year. Certainly, epochal change has been discussed for some time, but last year a series of events occurred that ensured the dominant information format irrevocably changed from analog to digital. Consider the following:

  • In September, a consortium of publishers and writers sued Google, alleging the search giant’s Book Search digitization project infringes several of the publishers’ exclusive copyright rights.
  • In November, the Library of Congress announced it is creating the World Digital Library, an online collection of rare books, manuscripts, and other materials that would be freely accessible for viewing by anyone, anywhere with Internet access.
  • Inspired by Project Gutenberg, the Web’s first and largest collection of e-books, Hugh McGuire creates LibriVox, a project whereby volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain, then transfer those recordings into .mp3 files that are made freely available on the Web.
  • In May, an associate university librarian at the UCLA Library announced that library would discontinue buying 540 print titles and opt to receive those titles exclusively in electronic format. The move was announced as part of a cost-cutting initiative.
  • For at least 18 months, the Association of American Publishers has been murmuring about alleged illegalities in the way university systems administer their electronic course reserve collections. AAP has yet to file a lawsuit, and may abstain from doing so while the Section 108 Study Group is preparing findings for the Librarian of Congress. The findings, which are due by the middle of this year, will investigate possible changes to Section 108 of the Copyright Act, the law that provides copyright exceptions for libraries and archives. It is possible, however, that if the Group does not develop recommendations the publishing industry approves, the publishing industry may launch a litigation campaign that would be similar to the music industry’s lawsuits against alleged illegal file sharers.

Each of these events affects libraries in significant ways, and all of them involve a complex understanding of copyright law. From digitization projects to interlibrary loan and from electronic reserves to electronic books, copyright law is having an impact on librarianship.

Why, then, have the nation’s accredited graduate library science programs categorically failed to provide copyright law instruction?

The Push for Education

Then why have the nation’s accredited graduate library science programs categorically failed to provide copyright law instruction?

I first noticed the absence of comprehensive copyright education in librarianship in the summer of 2002, a year after I graduated from Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. When I proposed creating a copyright seminar for librarians to Syracuse administrators, I noted that some schools offered a broad information policy course that included a copyright component, but no American Library Association-accredited program offered a regularly scheduled, mandatory seminar that distinctly addressed copyright law within the context of library and information science. Fortunately, my alma mater decided to accept my proposal to teach such a course; I have been teaching a weeklong graduate copyright seminar at the school since 2003.

Given the critical copyright issues for libraries—the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the Uniform Commercial Information Transactions Act (UCITA), the Eldred case fighting the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, and the Section 108 Study Group—I had hoped our nation’s library schools would have made copyright education a priority. Instead, I found an alarming absence of education in this area.

Critical Library Management

In glancing at the online course catalogs for all 49 ALA-accredited graduate library science programs in the continental United States, I could find only two schools – Syracuse and Emporia State University in Kansas – that list a copyright course amongst their course offerings. In fact, fewer than half ( 24 of 49 schools) offers a course that addresses information policy or legal issues on any level. Therefore, even if we expanded the scope of inquiry beyond copyright to policy issues such as the USA PATRIOT Act or patron confidentiality, half the accredited programs provide no instruction for such critical library management issues.

Finally, ALA’s own document “Guidelines for Choosing a Master’s Program in Library and Information Studies” ( does not provide information about the need for special training, including training in copyright education or information policy work.

Given the importance of copyright issues in daily professional librarianship and library advocacy, it speaks poorly for our profession that so many librarians enter the workforce without proper grounding in copyright, the legal construct that governs the creation, reproduction, distribution, and repurposing of information. To quote Hamlet (while freely availing myself of public domain privileges), “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Copyright knowledge is as integral a part of the contemporary information science education as cataloging or reference. Failing to provide that training for today’s library science students is akin to having students pay money for an incomplete degree.

Note: A version of this article was published as Dames, K. M. (2006, February). Library schools and the copyright knowledge gap. Information Today, 23(2), 1, 4-5.

Written by Dr. K Matthew Dames

02/01/2006 at 09:00

%d bloggers like this: