This week the Internet Archive, in San Francisco, announced—and, in the blink of an eye, opened—the National Emergency Library, a digital collection of 1.4 million books. Until June 30th, or the end of the national emergency in the United States (“whichever is later”), anyone, anywhere in the world, can check books out of this library—for free. As Brewster Kahle, the digital librarian at the Internet Archive, wrote in an online announcement, if you can afford to buy books, please buy books! Bookstores still need your business. But, by God, if you can’t afford them, or if the books you need aren’t in any bookstore, and, especially, if you are one of the currently more than one billion students and teachers shut out of your classroom, please: sign up, log on, and borrow!
Meanwhile, not to be sneezed at is the sheer pleasure of browsing through the titles. “How to Succeed in Singing.” “Interesting Facts about How Spiders Live.” “An Introduction to Kant’s Philosophy.” Those are all from 1925. Nearly all the books in the collection come from the last century or so. I looked up “Proust,” which brought up four hundred and forty-eight titles. You can read Beckett on Proust, or Bloom on Proust, or just “On Proust.” I found about a hundred more books about moose, mainly children’s books, including a Dr. Seuss book, “Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose,” but also an illuminating natural history from 1955, “North American Moose” (“the first comprehensive book of its type”), by a curator from the Department of Mammalogy at the Royal Ontario Museum. I did also look up books with the word “virus” in the title. Blech. I do not recommend this search. Still, if you sort the virus books by reverse publication date, and only look at the jackets, you get a freaky little mini-history of the visual iconography of virality. It passes the time.