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The slowly growing cross-disciplinary interest over the past decade in the use of visual media for pedagogical purposes exploded across the country in 2020 as faculty in every discipline adapted to teaching hybrid or fully online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Academic librarians are creatively seeking and developing new ways to meet the burgeoning demand for streaming delivery of visual media content across the disciplines. However, the absence of a cross-disciplinary code of best practice and of copyright case law, in addition to several localized factors, have led to a pastiche approach to providing access to visual media for pedagogical purposes. This moment of disruption caused by a truly horrific pandemic is an opportunity to review the ways academic libraries are now delivering visual media content and to identify kernels that one day can become a codified community of practice for cross-disciplinary streaming visual media content delivery.

Media studies scholars have long pushed against the real and perceived confines of copyright law as it relates to film in research and teaching. Through the collaborative work of media scholars, librarians, archivists, and copyright law experts, a community of practice was developed and eventually codified into the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Statement of Fair Use Best Practices for Media Studies Publishing and SCMS Statement of Best Practices for Fair Use in Teaching.[1] The codification of their existing community of practice was pivotal for the field of media studies and has enabled libraries and archives to provide resources and services that more directly meet the research and pedagogical needs of media studies faculty. Largely due to specific wording focused exclusively on the needs of media studies faculty and students in one of the exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which permits bypassing digital encryption on DVDs and Blu Rays, “for educational purposes (A) By college and university faculty and students... for the purpose of criticism, comment, teaching, or scholarship”; many librarians err on the side of caution and do not apply the affordances of SCMS’s Statements on Fair Use to faculty in other disciplines.[2] As a result, progress toward providing similar degrees of access to non-media academic fields is generally stymied.

A 2014 study by media librarians deg farrelly and Jane Hutchinson revealed that only 42% of libraries that participated in their survey were actively digitizing visual media from their collections. Of those, only 33% applied the same Fair Use principles at the heart of SCMS’s Statement of Fair Use Best Practices for Media Studies Publishing.[3] Although there has been no substantive change in the availability of a shared community of practice or case law, the pandemic has pressed the issue and caused many media librarians to wonder whether perhaps more libraries are engaging in digitization than realized. If so, then the door is open for the codification of best practices that would enable academic libraries to more fully and equitably meet the visual media needs of all faculty regardless of discipline.

The urgency of the moment and desire to capture a broad cross-section of library types render a repeat of the farrelly and Hutchinson study prohibitive. In response to JCMS’s urgent call for the Teaching Media Dossier “Copyright Under COVID-19,” we came together as a group of three media librarians, archivists, and instructors who are facing these precise dilemmas in our own institutions and in our own positions as content providers and instructors. We weighed several approaches to surveying current practices in the field to learn how academic libraries are meeting the demands brought about by the ever-evolving institutional and governmental responses to the pandemic. We considered limiting the study to R1 research institutes, but ultimately rejected this approach as the narrow parameters of such a group would entrench the study in culturally biased conceptions of higher education and fail to account for the diversity of resource availability and ingenuity often found among community colleges and other non-R1 institutions.

To capture a broad snapshot, the study focused on institutions within the following ranking categories in College Consensus: 50 Best Colleges and Universities, 50 Best Community Colleges, and 50 Underrated Colleges Doing Great Things. To create these rankings, College Consensus combines the average scores from a number of published college rankings publishers such as U.S. News, Forbes, and others with student consensus data found on the open web.[4] One library website was blocked and thus not included in the survey data. After collecting the data from the remaining 149 library websites, we realized that our dataset included no historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and found their absence from the three top 50 lists did not reflect the project goal of working with a fully representational data set. To rectify, College Consensus’ top 20 HBCUs were added to our data set, bringing the total dataset to 169 institutions.[5] Publicly posted policies, resources, and services on library websites were studied to answer a series of questions about each institution's approach to providing streaming access to visual media, the combination of which would begin to paint a picture of the broader landscape for streaming visual media delivery.

The results of this web-based survey tell a slightly different story than the one told in 2014. Indeed, the scale might have shifted ever so slightly in favor of digitization. The survey of library websites asked three variations of one core question:

  1. Does this library digitize films that are otherwise unavailable via any streaming platform?
  2. Does this library digitize films that are available on commercial streaming platforms?
  3. Does this library digitize films that are available on academic streaming platforms?

What the survey found was continued divergent practices but there was a slightly higher percentage of libraries engaging in digitization than found by the 2014 survey. Broadly speaking, most libraries surveyed (59%) did not have publicly posted policies about media reserves and/or visual media digitization. Why so many institutions have no publicly posted policy is unknown at this time, however, there is ample anecdotal evidence suggesting that at least a handful of these institutions are engaging in some form of visual media digitization but are intentionally choosing not to publically share information about their program due to liability concerns. Of those that did describe their program, 50% engaged in some degree of visual media digitization in support of their faculty's pedagogical needs. By far, the majority of institutions that digitize visual media from their library collections only digitize films that are not legally available on any streaming platform. A very small subset (8%) will digitize films that are available on commercial streaming platforms and an even smaller subset digitizes films available via academic streaming platforms. This suggests that among institutions publicly advertising a visual media digitization program, there is already a fairly significant shared practice of limiting digitization eligibility to content not otherwise legally available online.

Another set of key questions revolve around delivery and access. In 2010, the Music Library Association (MLA) published their Statement on the Digital Transmission of Audio Reserves. In short, as early as 2010, MLA supported “the creation and transmission of digital audio file copies of copyrighted recordings of musical works for course reserves purposes.”[6] In it, delivery and access were similarly key concerns. Among other conditions, MLA determined that access to audio media should be limited to those who can be authenticated as enrolled in the required course and that access to audio media files should be removed at the end of the course. Whether academic institutions surveyed by this project were aware of MLA’s guidelines for digital audio media reserves or not, all but one adhered to these two core principles. With the exception of one institution which had developed a home-grown streaming server, all institutions that engaged in visual media digitization provided access via their institution's course management system. This practice enables libraries to ensure those accessing the visual media content were authenticating as students actively enrolled in the course. While not all institutions with a digitization program included the minute details of the program on public web pages (indeed, a small number of institutions had their digital media reserve requests behind an institutional log-in), those that were transparent in the description of their program all indicated the films would only be available for the duration of the course.

We also examined whether institutions had access to copyright expertise as well as whether the library had a media librarian or media department. Curiously, the presence or absence of either of these roles in the library seems to have only limited bearing on digitization practices. Of the 26 institutions that could be clearly assessed as having copyright expertise on staff, half engaged in visual media digitization while the remaining half did not. Twelve institutions that had no strong evidence of a copyright expert on staff did digitize visual media but only five institutions that could be definitively assessed to have not consulted a copyright expert did not. Of this last group, it is possible that the media reserve coordinators consulted with university counsel but the ability to capture this data was beyond the scope of this project. In looking at practices among institutions that do or do not have a media librarian or media department, libraries that have a media librarian or department on staff were slightly more inclined to digitize than not: 53.8% engaged in some degree of visual media digitization while 46.2% did not. These percentages flipped among institutions that had no media librarian or department: 45.7% did digitize visual media but 54.1% did not. In other words, the presence of copyright expertise on staff in academic libraries seems to have little bearing on visual media digitization practices, but the presence of a media librarian or department does make a small impact here.

A clearer connection might be made between digitizing visual media content and the availability of academic streaming databases. Access to academic streaming databases appears to have very little impact when it comes to digitizing visual media that is otherwise unavailable via academic or commercial platforms. However, it does seem to have at least a small degree of influence over decisions to digitize content available on commercial or academic streaming platforms. Whereas not a single institution with access to three or more academic streaming databases digitized visual media that is already available via commercial platforms, four out of 30 institutions, or 13.3%, with access to two or fewer academic streaming databases did digitize commercially available material. Similarly, only one of 20 libraries with access to three or more academic streaming databases digitized visual media available via academic databases, but a much larger 16% of institutions with two or less academic streaming databases currently digitize titles available via academic streaming resources. Interestingly, the only libraries that are actively digitizing films already available on commercial platforms belong to the 50 Underrated Colleges Doing Great Things category. Could it be a disparity not only in resources but also in how pedagogical needs and Fair Use are accounted for in institutional risk assessments?

Our research provided some insight into a fraught question. At the macro level, this research exemplifies patterns of “quiet transgression” and hyper-compliance similar to those found among media literacy educators by Hobbs, Jaszi, and Aufderheide in 2007.[7] The result in both cases include diminished pedagogical effectiveness, implementation of unnecessary roadblocks and hurdles for distribution and access, as well as the perpetuation of copyright misunderstandings.[8] On closer inspection, however, the figures suggest that academic libraries are indeed rolling out visual media digitization programs. It also shows three key common practices: digitize only the content that is not otherwise available via existing digital platforms; only make digitized visual media available to students who can authenticate as enrolled in the course via a course management system, and only make digitized visual media available for the duration of the course. With rare exception, these ultimately form the three tenets of a potentially nascent community of practice for visual media digitization programs.

Despite the answers this research yielded, many questions remain. What role do budgets for purchasing visual material play in decision making related to visual media digitization programs? What impact do human resources have on program development? How crucial is the role of institutional legal counsel in authorizing and defining the scope of such a program? One additional question that derives from informal conversations among media librarians - how many academic libraries have a digitization program to support the pedagogical needs of their faculty but do not publicize the program for fear of negative repercussions? This final question is, perhaps, the most critical as it speaks to an urgent need for open discussion to understand the full scope of instructional needs, institutional capacity, and the affordances offered by the copyright code. This research offers a potential starting point by bringing to light common publicly shared practices. However, continued and transparent discussion between educators, librarians, and copyright specialists must continue to develop a shared community of practice that will enable them to fully support the creative pedagogical needs of all faculty regardless of discipline.

As the pandemic wears on, faculty and students are increasingly adapting to new ways of teaching and learning. At the same time, American universities and colleges are responding in new and, hopefully, radical ways to address and remediate systemic societal racial injustice by fully re-assessing equity not only in terms of representation, but also in terms of access to learning resources that support the academic success of all their students and faculty. There is no better moment than this one for librarians to work with media scholars, faculty across the disciplines, and copyright experts to rise to the challenge and draw from existing shared practices brought to the surface by this study and to develop a community based set of best practices that will enable all academic libraries to provide their faculty and students meaningful and equitable access to streaming visual media content.


lisa Hooper, Tulane University collects and provides access to film to support the research and pedagogical needs of Tulane faculty and students across the academic disciplines. Her work also encompasses collection curation and information literacy work in the fields of music, dance, and theatre. As head of Media Services at Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, lisa is responsible for providing care, management, and access to the library’s extensive film, music, microform, and newspaper collections. Additionally, through Media Services and partnerships with other library and academic departments, lisa works to create opportunities for interdisciplinary discovery and creative scholarship for the Tulane learning and research community.

Regina Longo, Brown University is an audiovisual archivist, historian, researcher, producer, and film programmer. She manages the MCM film and video archives and teaches in the department of Modern Culture and Media. She began her archival career at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and has managed preservation efforts for the Albanian National Film Archives through theAlbanian Cinema Project, the capacity building nonprofit project she founded. She taught at SUNY Purchase, UCSC, and UCSB, where she received her PhD. She continues to consult and produce content for public history museums and volunteers her time to aid archives at risk globally. She is currently a director of the Board of theAssociation of Moving Image Archivists, an international nonprofit association dedicated to the preservation and use of moving image media.

After earning her Master’s Degree in Information Science at SUNY Albany,Jennifer Zuccaro, Syracuse University began her career at West Virginia State University as the periodical/government documents librarian. Starting at Syracuse University in 2017, she is currently the serials acquisitions librarian overseeing the continuing resource collections at the libraries. Managing the financial and legal aspects of these collections and ensuring uninterrupted access, Jennifer works with vendors and public service departments to troubleshoot and respond to any e-resource issues. Most recently, she has been involved with responding to the shift from physical media to digital, partnering with collection development librarians and other departments, to create flexible workflows, policy and solutions for acquiring media with intricate needs.


    1. “Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Statement on Fair Use,” Society for Cinema and Media Studies, accessed December 10, 2020,https://www.cmstudies.org/page/fair_use.

    2. United States Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Of 1998 : Report Together with Additional Views [to Accompany S. 2037). [Washington, D.C.] :[U.S. G.P.O.,], 1998. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, s. 201.40 (a) (1) (ii) (A), accessed December 1, 2020,https://www.copyright.gov/title37/201/37cfr201-40.html.

    3. deg farrelly and Jane Hutchinson, “Academic Library Streaming Video: Key Findings from the National Survey,” Against the Grain 26, no. 5 (2014): 73-75.

    4. “About College Consensus,” CollegeConsensus.com, accessed November 28 2020,https://www.collegeconsensus.com/about/.

    5. “HBCU Listing,” The Hundred-Seven, accessed December 1, 2020,http://www.thehundred-seven.org/hbculist.html We surveyed the top 20 ranking HBCUs as a figure proportional to the number of institutions classified as HBCUs relative to the number of institutions in the previous three categories. There are 107 schools in the U.S. that are officially recognized as HBCUs whereas there are thousands of schools in each of the other three categories surveyed.

    6. “Statement on the Digital Transmission of Audio Reserves”, Music Library Association, accessed November 29, 2020,https://www.musiclibraryassoc.org/mpage/copyright_dtar.

    7. Renee Hobbs, Peter Jaszi, and Pat Aufderhedie, The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy. Washington, DC: Center for Media & Social Impact, 2007: 14-15.https://cmsimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Final_CSM_copyright_report_0.pdf

    8. Hobbs, Jaszi, and Aufderhedie, The Cost of Copyright Confusion, 16-17, 19.