March 24, 2014

Whose reading room is it, anyway?


How infringe-y does this guy look? A little bit? Not so much?

How infringe-y does this guy look? A little bit? Not so much?

Is taking a photo of a library’s reading room copyright infringement? That’s the question that arose last week when two researchers, one at the British Library and one at the New York Public Library, exchanged photos over Twitter of the respective reading rooms they were working in that day.

Matthew Ingram, a senior writer at Gigaom, and John Gapper, a columnist and editor for the Financial Times, inadvertently sparked off a debate over this issue when, in a friendly Twitter exchange on Friday, they sent each other photos of the Periodicals Reading Room at the NYPL and the Humanities Reading Room at the BL. These weren’t gripe photos; instead, the point seems to have been to express a momentary “aren’t I lucky to be working here” or at least, “here are my working conditions, and they’re really quite nice.” Gapper’s photo in particular shows a reading room full of patrons — the sort of photo that usually warms a library-lover’s heart.

But the British Library couldn’t take the compliment: soon after the tweets went up, whoever was manning the BL Twitter feed demanded that Gapper delete his photo, claiming that it violated copyright. Gapper backed off, but Ingram responded, pushing the BL on the claim. It was, after all, ridiculous: you can see from the photo that Gapper clearly wasn’t attempting to photograph the books, just the space.

But it could have been copyright infringement, retorted the BL Twitter feed with a Gareth Keenan-level of pedantry, arguing back at Ingram in the following tweets:

BL copyright tweets 1

BL copyright tweets 2

Mike Masnick at TechDirt diagnoses this as a prime example of a specious “because….copyright” argument, where because copyright is somehow sort of involved in some cases in this venue and with these materials, and because people get antsy around it, copyright is invoked, even when it really has nothing to do with the matter in hand.

Ultimately, this got sorted out. Gapper had unwittingly trespassed against one thing only: the British Library’s rules, which forbid taking photos in the reading room. Copyright didn’t have anything to do with it, and the British Library apologized.

However, what’s particularly interesting about this whole affair is that taking photos of yourself in a library is not, at the moment, an act entirely without political import. Because over the past few weeks, a Meetup group affiliated with the Committee to Save the New York Public Library has been organizing “work-ins” in the Rose Reading Room of the main branch to protest against the library’s proposed renovations. Members of the group bring their laptops to the reading room and spend a couple of hours working as they would normally, but with one key difference: they display SaveNYPL stickers prominently and share photos of themselves and the stickers on social media.

In doing so, they’re drawing attention to the library in use and themselves as users, a sight that isn’t often recorded and circulated. It’s a quiet protest, but an effective one in its focus on what actually happens in a library, and who might be affected by the changes the NYPL has proposed.

You could even see the NYPL work-ins as a formalized extension of Gapper’s photo. And their collective message? I am here, and I too have rights.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.