The University’s digital library will turn a new leaf this Fall as its collection is expanded to include a multitude of previously unavailable titles.

Duke, along with Cornell University, Emory University and Johns Hopkins University, is working to open access to a unique class of online books called “orphan works.” These out-of-print books—published between 1923 and 1963—are still under copyright, but their copyright owners are either no longer living or not able to be contacted.

“It is the first time there’s been an intentional effort to make orphan works available to the academic community on this scale,” said Kevin Smith, scholarly communication officer at Perkins Library.

The four institutions are the latest to join several other universities already in the Orphan Works Project, which seeks to identify the orphan books contained in the HathiTrust Digital Library. HathiTrust, a partnership of more than 60 major research institutions, currently holds 9.5 million digitized works, more than half of which may be orphan works.

Titles will be posted on its website as the HathiTrust identifies the orphan books. To discourage infringement, copyright owners of the works then have 90 days to claim ownership of the texts before they become digitally accessible.

“Students will be able to read [digital copies of books] without the delay of locating the print, checking the book out or recalling it from another offsite shelving facility or the Library Service Center,” wrote Deborah Jakubs, University librarian and vice provost for library affairs, in an email Aug. 30. “Just as researchers have gotten used to e-journals and the delivery of journal literature to their desktop, they will also be able to read books in that way.”

The general public will have access to the orphan works through the libraries’ computers, though Jakubs noted that Duke students will use their NetID and password to access the collections remotely.

Duke will not incur any costs by participating in the project, she added.

To further prevent any instances of copyright infringement, Smith said, the University will only provide access to e-books its libraries hold in print form and use an authentication process to restrict access to members of the Duke community.

HathiTrust executive director John Wilkin wrote in an email Friday that the potential for any intellectual property issues to arise is low because universities are promoting the advancement of knowledge by making the books digitally available.

“[There] are fair uses, as defined by U.S. copyright law, and the fact that... faculty and students will be finding and using an increasingly large collection for scholarly purposes is a key part of that fair use determination,” he noted.

Smith, who spearheaded Duke’s membership in the Orphan Works Project, said the nature of the project prevents the possibility of legal problems from copyright owners.

“True orphans do not have a copyright holder who can be located, so there is very little chance of a problem,” he said.

Smith added that if rights holders were willing to initiate legal battles, the works in question would not be considered orphaned—and not in the project at all.

Jennifer Jenkins, director for Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, said that in addition to increasing access to these works for scholarship and research, the collaborators are rescuing the texts from obscurity, resulting in a win-win situation for both institutions and copyright holders.

Although many of the works are obscure, Smith said he believes students will still benefit from increased access to research materials.

“Duke is a research library so they must plan for the possibilities,” he said. “We hold materials that may not [all] get heavy use, but may be useful to some people.”

Jakubs said she predicts that there will be a wide audience for these books due to ease of access.

“People we may not have anticipated will be discovering them in our catalog, just as people come across all sorts of regular books on a daily basis,” she said.

By providing online access to works, the library is catering to students, Head of Research Services Jean Ferguson said.

Jeremy York, an assistant librarian at the University of Michigan—one of the project’s founding participants—said Duke’s involvement with the project will help it grow in the future.

“As an early adopter, Duke is taking a lead in the effort and helping to set a precedent that we hope other institutions will follow,” York said.

York noted that there are currently 148 volumes that have been identified as candidates for orphan works at Duke. That number has the potential to reach the thousands, he added.

Students will benefit from the project immediately, Wilkin said, noting that the Orphan Works Project may change how libraries manage their collections.

“It is a big step forward,” Jenkins said.