The Digital Librarian's Legal Handbook

By Boyd, Morag | Library Resources & Technical Services, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Digital Librarian's Legal Handbook


Boyd, Morag, Library Resources & Technical Services


The Digital Librarian's Legal Handbook. By John Ng'ang'a Gathegi. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2012. 223 p. $130 paper (ISBN 9781-55570-649-4). Legal Advisor for Librarians, Educators, & Information Professionals.

The Digital Librarian's Legal Handbook is intended to serve as a reference tool for library and information professionals to assist them in navigating the complex decisions and judgments necessary when working with electronic information. Author John N. Gathegi highlights a variety of legal considerations that are likely to be encountered in the digital library. Although at times overly detailed or abstract, this handbook provides good explanations of legal concepts and draws attention to issues often overlooked by the literature in this field.

Gathegi makes every effort to present the legal landscape of electronic information as straightforwardly as possible. Although copyright is the first, or even only, issue that comes to mind, Gathegi points out the many other legal issues--from trade secrets to privacy--that may become involved when working with the wide range of digital information in libraries. Explaining the nuances of intellectual property law in clear and explicit language is nearly impossible, so Gathegi can be forgiven for his lack of success in this regard. Nevertheless, Gathegi's decision to position his book in this challenging field, of which copyright is a major but not sole component, is a strong draw of the work.

Another foundational issue of this handbook is the scope of a "digital library." This term, defined in the opening sentence as "collections of organized informational items in digital format that can be accessed utilizing a computer," (1) feels a little outdated, yet widens the range of the topics discussed. The handbook discusses many types of digital collections, including materials being digitized by a library, vendor-provided content, born-digital materials, and search engine technology to name a few. This breadth of treatment is useful because libraries are likely to deal with a variety of digital materials. That said, more focused discussions--for example, on the process of digitizing a collection--would have strengthened this section.

A great deal of helpful information is packed into this slim volume, with the main text running 155 of the book's 223 pages. Appropriately, Gathegi offers considerable explication of U.S. copyright law. Discussion of copyright, which makes up four chapters, focuses on content owners, rights granted to those owners under copyright law, duration of rights, and granting of rights to others, respectively. Because copyright connects to other legal matters, it is discussed in subsequent chapters. The last of the thirteen chapters in the handbook covers international aspects of copyright, which improved my understanding of rights associated with materials produced outside of the United States. Explanations of these sometimes less familiar topics are generally clear. For instance, I found the discussion of the first-sale doctrine in an international context to be particularly lucid. A recent article on this topic, whose relevance was originally lost on me, was clarified after reading Gathegi's explanation about the first-sale doctrine's relationship to the right of reproduction. (1)

Despite the handbook's clear legal explanations and summaries of issues, the connection of these principles to daily library practices is weak; additional explanations clearly situated in the library context are needed. Each chapter ends with a hypothetical scenario presumably intended to serve the context-setting and cohesive functions that are lacking in the work. Unfortunately, the hypotheticals are not tied specifically to the chapter in which they appear, so information from later chapters may be needed to address the scenarios. …

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