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Free Resources in Response to COVID-19: What Faculty Need to Know

By Liz Hamilton, Copyright Librarian

Many vendors have been expanding user access to their digital resources in light of library closures due to COVID-19. While at first glance this seems like a useful alternative to print in this complicated period, it’s not always that simple. Many of these resources will be available to new users for a limited time only (so far, most expire at some point in June 2020). While they may be useful to your courses and research while access to the Libraries’ print collections is unavailable, they’re not part of the library’s permanent collection and may not be here to stay. Fortunately, your subject librarian can help you navigate these digital resources, both the temporary new offerings and our permanent collection, and help you find materials that work for your class and your research. 

Guide to Free Resources

If you are interested in exploring your temporary access to this digital content, the Libraries have a guide to Free Resources Available in Response to Covid-19, compiled by librarians Geoff Morse and Anna Ren. It’s a great overview of what’s temporarily available to the Northwestern community. Most of these resources are new or expanded access to licensed databases, but a pair of them, HathiTrust and the Internet Archive, are interesting because they employ the fair use doctrine of copyright law to enable access to digitized versions of printed volumes. 


HathiTrust has made scans of in-copyright print volumes in their collection that are also held by Northwestern University Libraries available to Northwestern users on a limited basis. These titles are available to be read online by one user at a time for a one hour borrowing period (renewable if there’s no waitlist), and one page at a time can be downloaded. Public domain titles in HathiTrust remain freely available to read by all. To see what’s there, log into their website using your NetID and password. Available titles will also turn up in searches of Northwestern’s catalog: Look for the link that says “Full Text available at HathiTrust” or “Check HathiTrust for access to full text.”

Hathi Trust full text link example

HathiTrust is a great resource because it offers digital access to approximately 42 percent of Northwestern’s print collections, and after digital access to these titles turns off, Northwestern community members will still have access to print versions. HathiTrust may also hold digital versions of print titles that are not available elsewhere digitally. 


The Internet Archive

The Internet Archive has taken a broader approach and sparked controversy by suspending waitlists for volumes in its new National Emergency Library. Previously, the Archive made titles available under a concept called Controlled Digital Lending, where one digital copy serves as a surrogate for one print copy, and is checked out to one user at a time for a typical loan period. If a book was checked out, the user would ordinarily have to wait, but in these unusual times, they’re changing their practice to accommodate unlimited users and unlimited renewals. This new and temporary collection has approximately 1.4 million digital volumes, not all of which are available digitally elsewhere, and may be a useful resource for classes and other research. However, authors and publishers can and are opting out of participating, so while they have a large collection, these titles may not be permanently available even within the period of the collection (through June 30, 2020, or the end of the U.S. national emergency, whichever is later). 


Open Educational Resources

Though not new to COVID-19, another set of options for digital course content are open educational resources, or OER. These materials are free to use, permanently available, and issued under licenses that allow instructors to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the content provided. Explore OER on the Affordable Instructional Resources (AIR) site, or visit the Libraries Adopt an Open Textbook Guide to help you navigate these options. 

Some have noted that the cascade of temporarily open resources feels more like a marketing ploy than an act of goodwill. There may be some marketing aspects involved, but in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to use these additional resources to your advantage while they’re available. And if there’s something you’re looking for that you still can’t find, don’t hesitate to reach out to your librarians for help!