I love libraries — and their deposits

Rijksmuseum library in Amsterdam

I’ve got a thing for libraries. I visit them on vacation (including dragging family members to the main branch of Seattle Public Library shortly after it opened in 2004), make special trips to see them (like a worthwhile pilgrimage to the St Gallen monastery library in Switzerland*), and consider them top post-relocation destinations (even before getting health care sorted). I have a masters degree in Library and Information Studies and, several lives ago, spent many Saturdays doing reference desk duty at a public library.

I borrow hundreds of ebooks and digital magazines every year, although I’d prefer not to disclose precisely how many library cards I currently have 🙈

Libraries are perpetually intriguing to me. My latest fascination is deposit libraries, an old concept with some modern complications.

Deposit what now?

Many countries require that a copy of every book published within their borders is given (yes, for free) to one or several national repositories, so-called deposit libraries. It’s a way to build a national collection and preserve materials for (limited) public use and future generations. Some places (like the US) also combine it with copyright registration.

The idea has been around for hundreds of years (legal deposit began in Denmark in 1697, Sweden in 1661, Spain in 1619, and France in 1537 😮) and is still important worldwide.

What gets deposited?

The legal deposit law in my home country mandates that “up to two copies” of any “materials created in Canada and intended for sale or public distribution” be sent to Library and Archives Canada. This includes everything from books (audiobooks, too) and serials (magazines, journals, pamphlets, etc.**), to sheet music and maps. It also covers software and non-paper publications.

That’s where things get complicated. Do computer or console games need to be deposited? (most countries I looked at say ‘yes’) How about email newsletters? (generally, yup, if they’re distributed to more than 100 people and considered ‘public’) Could legal deposit apply to the content of the Internet as a whole? (that’s a big ‘maybe’)

The Australian state of Queensland explicitly includes ‘internet publications,’ but most jurisdictions go with the much broader term ‘digital publications’ or simply ‘non-paper.’ The US goes a different direction, exempting ‘most works that are published only online’ from mandatory deposit.

Grinning madly at Trinity College

Some depository systems can demand multiple copies — all at the publisher’s expense. For example, the British Library automatically gets a copy of anything published in the UK and Ireland, with five additional libraries able to request gratis copies. (those would be Oxford and Cambridge universities, Trinity College in Dublin, and the national libraries of Scotland and Wales) The Irish Republic has additional requirements and can demand up to thirteen depository copies of works published within its borders.

That’s a lotta stuff!

Library and Archives Canada has over 22 million books acquired predominantly through legal deposit (most of which aren’t actually on the shelves at their main location) and 54 million catalogued items in total. The British Library estimates its collection at 170 million items (including 60 million newspapers, 8 million digital journal articles, and 700,000 digital books) and received half a million new ones (plus over 100 terabytes of web stuff) in 2021.

The US claims to go even bigger (is anyone surprised?) with over 173 million catalogued items in the Library of Congress. In 2021, there were over 960,000 titles added through copyright registration (which is linked to mandatory deposit in the US). Of course, the Library of Congress requires copies of every book distributed in the country, regardless of where they’re published or created, which helps get their numbers up even further.

The US Copyright Office (and, by extension, the Library of Congress) also demands the ‘best edition’ of each work submitted. No cheaping out with shoddy soft bound editions!

Libraries 4ever!

I’m sure the legal deposit process is onerous for publishers (and possibly never considered by self-published authors) and an expensive one.*** But I’m pretty thrilled it results in robust collections — and likely never-ending work for librarians!

* Really, if you’re in Switzerland and love libraries, it’s worth a trip out to the Abbey Library of Saint Gall (just over an hour by train from Zurich’s main station).

** Newspapers are included in Canada’s legal deposit scheme ‘on request,’ meaning Library and Archives Canada has to ask publishers for them in writing. They’re covered by default in the UK and the US, and probably several other countries, too.

*** At least in Canada printing and distribution costs (although not full retail value) for depository requirements are tax deductible.

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4 thoughts on “I love libraries — and their deposits”

  1. Love the shout out for libraries and I learned a lot of new information. Bruce has an uncle who published a book of poetry 100 years ago but sadly it did not make it into a library collection and the family doesn’t own it either

    1. Sad to hear about the poetry book by Bruce’s uncle. What a good reason to send published material to a deposit library! In researching deposit libraries, I discovered that Library and Archives Canada is trying to make it easier for small publishers and self-published authors to add materials to their digital collections. Fingers crossed that helps preserve many more of these works

  2. Great article, Laura. Thank you!

    I can vouch for the Abbey Library of St. Gall. The full-on rococo interior is worth a trip itself. But what’s best is that the curators rotate books from its collection to display. The first time I took my mom there, we got to see a bible that had belonged to Charlemagne. She was thrilled!

    1. So cool that the book displays at the Abbey Library are rotated! And I can imagine the thrill of seeing a bible belonging to Karl der Große 🙂

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