Skip to main content

Get to Know a Copyright Librarian: Liz Hamilton

The Northwestern Libraries employ over 70 librarians who specialize in areas such as rare books, area studies, digital scholarship, and archives. In this series, we will sit down with a librarian to understand what exactly they do, and how you might take advantage of their expertise. First up is Copyright Librarian, Liz Hamilton.


*Staff Portraits by Matthew Xhang for use on Libraries website and in Libraries publications.

Give us a little bit of background information. How did you get into libraries? How long have you been at Northwestern? How did you become interested in copyright?

I’ve been at Northwestern for six years. I started at Northwestern University Press, went to library school while continuing to work full time, and I’m currently the Copyright Librarian, a role split between the Press and the Digital Scholarship Services department of the University Libraries.

I became interested in copyright in my first year at the Press. One of my early projects there was to investigate which of our existing print books we could convert to ebooks. This meant evaluating contracts to see what rights we had been granted by authors and other publishers. At the time I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I dove in, started reading contracts, asked a lot of questions, and searched for copyright resources that would help answer them.

I felt like a detective solving a case as I worked on that project. Reading through old files full of letters, legal documents, and other artifacts was fascinating. Some of our books have a surprisingly complex history, and copyright law is very nuanced as well. I enjoyed the analytical approach needed to answer these copyright questions; it was always very satisfying to reach an answer. Later on I formalized my copyright education by taking a seminar on digital copyright while in library school. When I realized that there was a broader need for copyright support in libraries and universities, I knew I’d found what I wanted to do.

I firmly believe that both libraries and publishers have, at their heart, the mission of connecting people with information. I made the move toward librarianship because I was interested in making these connections in a more public-facing way, rather than the behind-the-scenes work I had been doing at the Press. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave the university press world behind entirely. I’m very lucky to be able to work on copyright issues in both environments.

What is the role of copyright within academia? How does it affect undergrads, grads, and faculty?

This is a huge question! Copyright has a complex and far-reaching role in academia, not to mention society. We all own copyrights in works that we’ve created, whether that’s an email sent to a friend or colleague, a paper written for class or for publication, a photo snapped on your phone, etc. And we all want to use others’ copyrighted creations, whether that’s reading an article online, sending it to a friend or colleague, streaming music and movies, and more. Sometimes we want to combine exercising our own copyright with the use of someone else’s: quoting a novel in a English paper, or publishing a scholarly article with someone else’s images, for example. Whether and how we can do these things depends on the rules and exceptions within copyright law.

The Association of Research Libraries’ Fair Use in a Day in the Life of a College Student infographic illustrates some of the ways fair use is used on campus every day, and even that’s just one facet of copyright law. Copyright permeates so much in academia and beyond, especially as the digital takes a stronger role in our lives.

How can you assist the Northwestern community when navigating copyright issues?

I mainly assist the Northwestern community by responding to all sorts of copyright questions. (Send me an email with yours!) I provide resources and information on copyright law, and help members of the Northwestern community use these resources. Copyright issues can be very nuanced, so there’s not always an easy or clear answer, but I can help members of the community think through the relevant issues in order to find a solution that works for that situation.

I also offer copyright education to the campus community, typically in the form of workshops and presentations. Let me know if you’d like me to talk to your class, department, or group!

I’ll also add that I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t provide legal advice. I do work with the Office of General Counsel, and they are another great resource on campus should that become necessary.

What are your favorite copyright resources?

I love the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart. Caution: it’s daunting when you first look at it, but it’s immensely helpful in determining whether a work is protected by copyright in the US.

The Fair Use Checklist from the Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office is also one of my go-to resources. It helps break down fair use in a practical, understandable way. The rest of their website is also a terrific resource.

Just for fun: binge watch any shows on Netflix recently?

I watched Stranger Things a few months ago and I think everyone should, too! I’m currently working through Gilmore Girls for the first time, and trying to avoid spoilers for the new season that was just released until I finish. I’m about halfway through Season 5 right now and I’m loving it.