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Just look at the fight over the back issues of journals and magazines. Following a legal precept called the “first-sale doctrine,” once libraries have purchased a given copy of a magazine or book, they have been free to archive it and make it available to their patrons. But now, when libraries subscribe to a journal online, their access to back issues is at the vendor’s discretion. Since publishers now see libraries as a threat to their ability to profit from this body of published work, they are trying to overturn the first-sale doctrine. What’s more, journals and magazines are just a piece of a larger picture; both sides know that any new rules will likely govern access to e-books as well.

Perhaps even more troubling is the publishing industry’s wholesale attack on the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, whereby parts of works can be legally quoted or copied for noncommercial and educational purposes. Take, for example, a scheme spelled out recently by Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which counts HarperCollins Publishers among its vast media holdings. Chernin is calling for legislation that, according to Publishers Weekly, “guarantees publishers’ control of not only the integrity of an original work, but of the extent and duration of users’ access to that work, the availability of data about the work and restrictions on forwarding the work to others.” Put in plain English, Chernin is advocating a world that precludes the possibility of libraries as we know them, save perhaps as repositories for the fast-aging hard copies they already hold.

We will undoubtedly hear much more from Schroeder and Chernin as this complex battle is joined. However, the answer is emphatically not to abandon the core mission of the library but to reinterpret it for these times. Whatever systems are developed to control the exchange of published work in the digital realm, we need to insist on provisions for the kind of public access that libraries have traditionally made possible. Too much is at stake to let the publishing industry undo the careful copyright balance we have all come to rely upon.

All of which brings me back to that Manila sewer grate. Just as residents there came to treat gaping holes in the street as a normal-even acceptable-condition, we could get used to a world without public libraries. But the absence of free and accessible information would leave a gaping hole in our “infostructure” and result in an impoverished world. It is a world we can-and should-resist.

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