Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University

Vol. 29, No. 3                           printable version (pdf)   home

January 2009

Not Your Father's Electronic Reserve:
Online Media Delivery for Courses

by Claire Stewart

Each winter, more than 300 students enroll in Northwestern University’s Intermediate Spanish course. Every week, students watch a set of scenes extracted from a popular television soap opera and answer comprehension questions. The library digitizes and provides online access to these videos for anytime, anywhere viewing. This has proved so popular with the students that a special naming scheme had to be devised to prevent them from guessing the links to future episodes and watching in advance. During calendar year 2008, 154 other Northwestern faculty from departments including Classics, Gender Studies, Asian American Studies and the business school used the library’s video streaming service.

Faculty in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities all use non-text materials in their courses. Whether learning takes place in a physical environment, or a completely online space, faculty will use film, two and three-dimensional works of art, recorded music, and photographs alongside books, book chapters and articles.

The institution, most likely through the library, will be expected to provide access to these course materials in digital form, just as they have provided access to text-based course material through reserve services.

Unlike traditional text reserve materials, the “reserve” copies of digital media may be used more heavily in digital form in the classroom itself. While this may dramatically expand pedagogical opportunities for teachers, it also raises the bar for the underlying technical infrastructure. Faculty must have confidence that using digital media will not disrupt the smooth flow of a class session. Collaboration between the library and the institution’s information technology services may be particularly desirable in light of the current complexity of mounting well-integrated digital media reserve services.

Heightened Expectations

YouTube and Google Image Search have become part of our everyday lives, and iTunes, Amazon Music, and the dozens of peer-to-peer (P2P) file services (e.g., Napster and Kazaa) that have come and gone during the past decade have created a worldwide culture of online music acquisition, both legal and illegal. The vast majority of college or college-bound students watch videos or live TV online, upload their own videos or photos, and download web-based music. They also expect all of their university’s lecture materials (slides and podcasts, etc.) to be available online.1

In the face of this strong evidence that the student population is facile with different forms of media and expect to consume and share it online, some colleges and universities have begun to expand access to digitized course reserves material to include images, audio and video.

Developing services for these media introduces a host of new issues, as well as a few interesting twists on old ones, such as copyright. As with text readings, some media may be available through subscription services, but the technical, financial and legal frameworks for these offerings are still unstable and evolving rapidly, as, indeed, is the larger commercial marketplace for audiovisual media.

Mounting a Local Digital Media Reserve Service

Many academic libraries provide reserve services using a hybrid model: some readings are available for physical checkout, some are available via online subscription services, and some are digitized and hosted locally. This hybrid approach also works for media reserves, but building a local digital media delivery capability requires some special considerations. Exploring them, even on a limited pilot basis, will help the institution to prepare for increases in faculty technology adoption and position the library as a campus technology leader. The library can be an important partner in what will undoubtedly be a dramatic shift in pedagogical practices over the next 5 to 10 years.

In many ways, providing online access to media is only a first step—how faculty exploit and integrate it is far more interesting—but it’s a crucial first step. Tackling digital media delivery first in the context of curricular materials reduces the size of the problem and shortens the horizon. Starting small with an online delivery service that can be revisited at the end of every academic term commits relatively little staff and financial resources, with a comparatively large payoff in terms of new expertise.

Indiana University mounted its first Variations (variations2.indiana.edu) online digital music project in 1996. It has since grown into one of the largest and most well known examples of a local digital media service. Indiana is now in the midst of a third major phase. This is a wonderful example of starting with reasonably scoped goals for a first deployment, followed by extensive assessment and gradual increases in capacity and features. The second and third phases of Variations have added exciting, pedagogically rich tools, such as an audio segmentation and annotation tool, on top of the stable, vast core repertoire of recorded music.

Streaming vs Download

There are two primary methods of providing online access to time-based media (audio and video). A streaming server relies on a continuous network connection between the user and the server where the media is housed, but does not give each user a portable copy of the content. In contrast, download delivery does not rely on maintaining a network connection during the viewing or listening period. The student saves a copy of the media to her computer, or makes a copy to a portable device such as an iPod or a smartphone, and can disconnect from the network and play the files back anytime. The result of a download delivery is a separate, highly portable (and, presumably, sharable) copy of the file on every student’s computer.

Some media delivery services attempt to prevent redistribution of these copies by tethering downloads. This is a form of digital rights management (DRM) wherein files are downloaded, but accompanied by special software that will only permit playback on an authorized device or by an authorized user. While preventing illegitimate downstream reuse is indeed an attractive feature of such a system, in practice many DRM schemes like this are easily defeated. DRM schemes also create barriers to uses that are perfectly defensible, even if they are not what the original distributors had intended. Classroom use is one such use.

Subscription and Digital Purchase from Vendors

Remotely hosted media subscriptions and purchased digital files are available from a handful of providers, with more offerings likely to enter the marketplace as broadband connectivity improves and the cost of delivery drops. However, negotiating copyright and distribution rights for online delivery can be a significant hurdle for commercial providers.

In the image realm, ARTstor (www.artstor.org) is probably the most well known of the large subscription services. Launched in 2001 as a project of the Mellon Foundation, ARTstor combines and shares collections amassed by individual universities with large sets licensed from museums and other institutional holders. As of October 2008, ARTstor has nearly 800,000 images in a fully searchable database with a suite of powerful grouping and presentation tools.

A number of image vendors serving the academic market have migrated from providing 35mm slides to selling or licensing high quality digital files (for example, Scholars Resource and Davis Art). Even in the analog setting, image discovery and acquisition was highly idiosyncratic. In contrast with books, journals, music and video, a broad, orderly marketplace for photos and other images did not exist prior to the rise of digital. Depending on the discipline, a professor might turn to his textbook publisher, a museum, a historical archive, or a scientific journal to locate teaching images. It is unlikely that a proactively assembled collection such as ARTstor would serve all such needs, so purchasing digital image sets or individual digital files from vendors may be an option to explore.

Selected music services are also available with an institutional subscription option. Some music libraries have licensed content such as Naxos Music Library or Alexander Street Press’s Classical Music Library. So far these offerings are few, and while they may contain many thousands of tracks, are likely to be concentrated in one musical genre or on the works controlled by a particular distributor.2

A similar situation exists for the newest kid on the block, digital video. A very small handful of vendors sell or license digitally for educational use, with slightly more mature models for content developed specifically for the educational market.3 Approaches vary, from short-term access to a copy streamed from the provider’s site, to sales of “streaming rights,” to digital file purchase with perpetual academic use rights.

Colleges and universities often make up a very large percentage of the market for DVD and other video copies of documentary and independent works, but many of these distributors have not yet developed stable price models or delivery mechanisms for purely online distribution.

In many ways, the discussions surrounding subscription services for digital audio and video resemble the early discussions around models for access to online journal content. However, based in part on the explosive popularity of services such as NetFlix and YouTube, there seems to be a certain amount of confidence from video distributors that the pay-per-view model will succeed, and that it can be carried over to the educational market, where every assigned student viewing is a potential sale.4

In light of the relative immaturity of commercial digital options for images, audio and video, mounting local services on an exploratory basis may be a reasonable approach. At many institutions, a media services group may already be in the business of recording class lectures or webcasting campus events. Partnering with these groups, who likely already have media streaming servers and ample file storage space, may help to keep the cost of a pilot in check. One of the first questions that will inevitably arise in establishing a pilot program is whether it is actually legal to digitize media from library or faculty collections.

Copyright and Licensing

Section 106 of the United States Copyright Law sets forth the exclusive rights of the copyright holder, which includes the right to make and distribute copies and to display and perform the work publicly. Sections 107 through 122 set forth some limitations on these exclusive rights: circumstances under which others can make use of the work without explicit permission from the copyright holder. Traditionally, libraries have looked for guidance to sections 107–110 in determining whether or not their proposed uses might meet the criteria for an exception.

Two pieces of copyright legislation from the past decade affect digital media services. Section 110, the exemptions for face-to-face teaching, was expanded with the passage in 2002 of the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH). TEACH added new language to section 110(2) to address distance education.

Although it permits transmitting performances of entire non-dramatic literary or musical works, such as a recording of a symphony, and display of other works in an amount comparable to what would be displayed in a typical class session, it limits performances of everything else to the vague and unsatisfying “reasonable and limited portions.” Included in this category are all audiovisual works, and dramatic literary and musical works, a broad net that presumably captures opera, film and theatrical works.

“Starting small with an online delivery service that can be revisited at the end of every academic term commits relatively little staff and financial resources, with a comparatively large payoff in terms of new expertise.”

TEACH also requires the institution to meet other criteria to qualify: not-for-profit status, materials legally acquired to begin with (often an issue for faculty who like to teach with their off air television recordings), a copyright education program, and a number of safeguards pertaining to faculty supervision and access controls.

TEACH leaves enough gray space and adds enough new requirements that institutions may be better off falling back on section 107, the “fair use” exception. As Georgia Harper, a noted copyright expert, has written, “Fair use is almost always going to be the best source of authority for making copies in any context, but especially in conjunction with statutes like 110(2) that give us specific authorization that may not be sufficient in a particular case.”5

The other major piece of legislation affecting libraries and media services is the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its new section 1201 anti-circumvention provisions. Under this addition, it is illegal to (1) defeat or circumvent digital rights management technologies for the purpose of gaining access to an encrypted work, to (2) make or distribute tools to defeat access-protection controls and to (3) make or distribute tools to defeat protections of any of the exclusive rights (copying, performance, etc.). Interestingly, the DMCA is silent about the act of circumventing copy-protection (as opposed to circumventing access control) technologies, specifically stating that the statute does not diminish any of the 107–122 exceptions, including fair use.

The DMCA language is very confusing. Thus far, it has primarily been used to successfully sue manufacturers and distributors of tools and even then sometimes with a very peculiar interpretation.6 Litigation against tool users has not been common. The DMCA also includes a requirement that the Register of Copyrights evaluate the effect of the anti-circumvention language every three years and create new exceptions as needed. Until now, the Register has been fairly conservative and granted few new exceptions.

In the 2006 round, a very narrow exception to the anti-circumvention rule was added for film or media studies faculty wishing to “rip” from commercial DVDs for the purpose of making short digital clips.7 A call for new proposals has been issued, and the Copyright Office will make new anti-circumvention rules in 2009.

In the final analysis, we may be right back where we started with copyright law: the fair use statute, 107, is probably the most relevant in answering the question: can my library mount an electronic reserve service with media materials? The opinions of university counsel and local tolerance for risk will be paramount. Until Georgia State University was sued for copyright infringement in 2008, the electronic reserve landscape seemed able to tolerate a broad range of fair use interpretations across institutions, from very conservative to more liberal. The Music Library Association and the Visual Resources Association have both issued guidelines affirming the right, under fair use, to provide online access to media in the university environment.

Conclusion: What’s Next?

Two questions we really cannot answer yet are: what media distribution formats are likely to triumph in the marketplace, and what will faculty do with these media in future courses?

Preparing for the most likely digital media distribution eventualities with some small-scale piloting can be done with relatively little investment. It is unlikely that CDs, DVDs, or other physical formats such as BluRay will emerge as the sole media formats of the next decade. If digital downloads prevail, the library must manage these purchases and the infrastructure needed to store and deliver them to the students and faculty. If the subscription model prevails, there will likely be gaps in coverage, and so it still may be necessary to have some capacity for local media digitization, storage and delivery.

As with any new service, staff is likely to be the most significant cost, followed by digitization and server equipment. Fortunately, a reasonably powerful desktop computer can be inexpensively outfitted with enough basic hardware and software—a scanner, media playback decks, an AD converter, and some compression software—to make it a relatively low-risk investment. There may already be partners on campus with existing media server storage and delivery capabilities. If the library already provides a print electronic reserve service, the systems used to manage and present links can most likely be extended to include images, audio and video. Likewise, subscription or trial subscription to a media streaming service is not a forever commitment.

A more interesting question may be: what will we be able to do with digital media in the future, and in what new ways will faculty use it to enhance learning? Annotation tools, like those developed for Indiana’s Variations project, would also be useful for image and video collections. They might be used to address questions such as: what is the hidden meaning in a politician’s facial expression? Can learners use tools to mark up and code eye rolling and teeth clenching, then perform complex searches to correlate non-verbal behaviors with verbal utterances? Feature extraction technologies such as face recognition, indexing by image content, automatic image recognition, and speech to text conversion will eventually mature and enable entirely new forms of media analysis and scholarly inquiry.

These exciting future scenarios depend on solid, sustainable content that the library is excellently positioned to provide. Careful, cost-conscious innovation and active partner seeking, both with campus technology leaders and with faculty, will be critical to success.

Claire Stewart is Head of Digital Collections at Northwestern University Library, Evanston, IL. <clair-stewart@northwestern.edu>


1Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), Student Expectations Study: Key findings from online research and discussion evenings held in June 2007 for the Joint Information Systems Committee. 2007. Gail Salaway, Judith Borreson Caruso, and Mark Nelson, The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2008; 27 Oct 2008

2Randall Foster, “Re: Streaming audio collections and collections statistics.” MLA-L Archives 5 Oct 2007. 30 Oct 2008 <https://listserv.indiana.edu/cgi-bin/wa-iub.exe?A2=ind0710A&L=MLA-L&D=0&P=6489>.

3American Library Association Video Round Table, “Streaming video vendor grid.” June 2006. <http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/vrt/vrtconferenceinfo/streamingvendor.cfm>.

4Intelligent Television, Peter Kaufman, and Jen Mohan, The Economics of Independent Film and Video Distribution in the Digital Age. 2008.

5Office of General Counsel, University of Texas, “The TEACH Act Finally Becomes Law.” Copyright Crash Course. 13 Nov 2002. 30 Oct 2008 <http://www.utsystem.edu/ogc/intellectualproperty/teachact.htm>.

6Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Unintended Consequences: Seven Years under the DMCA.” Apr 2006. 30 Oct 2008 <http://www.eff.org/wp/unintended-consequences-seven-years-under-dmca>.

7United States Copyright Office, “Rulemaking on Anti-circumvention.” 13 Aug 2008. 30 Oct 2008 <http://www.copyright.gov/1201/>.

8Music Library Association, “Statement on Digital Transmission of Electronic Reserves.” Digital Reserves Copyright Guide for Music Librarians / Resources 2005. 30 Oct 2008
Visual Resources Association Committee on Intellectual Property Rights, “Image Collection Guidelines: The Acquisition and Use of Images in Non-Profit Educational Visual Resources Collections.” VRA Resources 11 May 2004. 30 Oct 2008 <http://www.vraweb.org/resources/ipr/guidelines.html>.

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last modified: January 2009


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