Institutions working to make books accessible to the World

As recently as 10 years ago, when most of us thought of books and publishing, a printed hardcover or paperback automatically came to mind. However, judging by the latest developments in ebook technologies, this deeply entrenched mindset forged in the groundbreaking creation of the printing press and nurtured over the past 600 years, is gradually giving way to new modes of reading that are equally revolutionary.

“The e-book market is developing very fast, with consumer attitudes and behaviors changing over the course of months, rather than years,” said Angela Bole, Deputy Executive Director of the US-based Book Industry Study Group (BISG).

According to the BISG’s recent Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading survey more and more readers are showing “increased loyalty to and satisfaction with the digital format.”

In the US and parts of Western Europe, including the UK, sales of ereaders are growing exponentially. The North American market leads the way in ebook sales and the development of digital publishing platforms. According to the findings of BookStats, an annual statistical survey of raw sales revenue and unit data provided by nearly 2,000 publishers, ebook net revenue increased by 1274.1 percent to $878 million between 2008 and 2010, while e-book net sales increased by 1039.6 percent to 114 million between 2008 and 2010. The Digital Reader cites some eye-opening reports and statistics showing how ebook sales in the US are accelerating while print sales are “plunging.”

In contrast, the developing world, including Africa and the Caribbean, are lagging far behind in the ebook adoption and digital publishing and the gap between the developed and developing world is widening – not only regarding the availability of ereading technologies but also internet access. According to Internet World Stats, Africa and the Caribbean have internet penetration rates of 11.5% and 25.2% of the population respectively as of March 31, 2011. Nevertheless, in both regions internet usage is growing steadily. Internet penetration in North America is 78.3%.

At the 1st International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives held 24-26 June 2009 at the United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia it was noted that the continent had not “engaged in any significant discussions and dialogue on strategy and policy for preserving and accessing its resources in digital form,” including developing digital libraries and archives. At the time, the same could be said of the Caribbean and to date both regions are dogged by the same issues.

On the bright side, there is an ongoing drive to build digital libraries and archives aimed at making culturally diverse books, manuscripts, journals, magazines and other related materials accessible to users around the world. These initiatives are largely being spearheaded by institutions in the US and Europe. As a result, an ecosystem is evolving where readers will increasingly be able to digitally check out books from libraries by clicking on the library’s Web site, download books and other reading materials unto their computers or reading device and read them almost anywhere. When their lending period is up, they return the books back to the library with a mouse click.

One of these libraries, the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL), says one of its goals is to “create a collection of more than 10,000 books in at least 100 languages that is freely available to children, teachers, librarians, parents, and scholars throughout the world via the Internet.” It’s one of a shortlist of international digital libraries I’ve decided to highlight in this post, each of them an altruistic venture in spreading reading matter and knowledge to the world through book digitization and distribution. These pioneers seem to make universal access (a primary aim of the World Wide Web itself) and maintaining the cultural and linguistic integrity of source materials the overriding priorities. This is what I find particularly impressive. How ‘free’ public access ultimately turns out to be, and how successful they are at coping with copyright restrictions and licenses, and the proprietary demands of commercial interests remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, here are some of those I find most inspiring.

International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL)

The ICDL’s stated goal is to make the “best in children’s literature,” available online free of charge and accessible to readers – both kids and adults – around the world. It is working to build a collection of books that “represents outstanding historical and contemporary books from throughout the world” and to have every culture and language represented so that every child, regardless of where they live, “can know and appreciate the riches of children’s literature from the world community.”

“It is hoped that through a greater understanding of one another that tolerance and acceptance can be achieved,” says the ICDL.

The library is administered by the ICDL Foundation, a non-profit corporation initially created by an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Maryland in collaboration with the Internet Archive. It comprises of hundreds of volunteers from around the world who identify books for the library collection; secure rights, package and send the books either physically or digitally and get the word out to users. Members of the team include computer scientists, librarians, educational technologists, classroom teachers, graphic designers, and graduate students from the University of Maryland’s (UMD) College of Information Studies (CLIS) and the UMD Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), a leader in children’s interface design.

ICDL are the innovators of Storykit, a free iPhone app which children can use to create stories on their phone or iPod Touch with text, pictures and other story elements. It allows them to create their own picture books from scratch using photos stored on their device, or they can edit and customize old classic picture books. All they need to do is type in text on each page and attach the photos, or draw their own illustrations.

The ICDL won the American Library Association President’s 2010 Award for International Library Innovation and was also named one of 25 Best Websites for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians.

 World Digital Library

Another notable international digital-library initiative is the World Digital Library project (WDL). It brings together on a single website rare and unique documents from countries and cultures around the world – books, journals, manuscripts, maps, prints and photographs, films, and sound recordings – “that tell the story of the world’s cultures.” The site is intended for general users, students, teachers, and scholars. The materials can be accessed online free of charge and in multilingual format. Ultimately its aim is to make digital resources from all over the world available from one access point.

The WDL interface operates in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. The documents on the site are presented in their original languages.

WDL was developed by a team from the US Library of Congress, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Technical assistance was provided by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Alexandria, Egypt. Several institutions contribute to the project, including libraries, archives, and educational and cultural institutions from the United States and around the world.

Cambridge University Library

The Cambridge University Library’s collections have reportedly grown over the past six centuries into one of the world’s leading libraries, with an accumulation of books, maps, manuscripts and journals. Included among its prized assets is the world’s largest and most significant collection of the scientific works of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). According to the library authorities, its collections cover “every conceivable aspect of human endeavour, spanning most of the world’s cultural traditions.” Although, part of Library’s manuscript collections has been published in print, microfilm and digital formats, it is now building a substantial online resource so that its vast collections can be more accessible to students, researchers and the wider public.

“Cambridge University Library contains evidence of some of the greatest ideas and discoveries over two millennia. We want to make our collections accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world with an internet connection and a thirst for knowledge,” says University Librarian, Anne Jarvis.  

Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization set up to serve as an Internet library. Founded in 1996 and based in San Francisco, the IA, two years ago, launched BookServer, an open platform that allows publishers, booksellers, libraries and authors to make their books available directly to readers through their laptops, phones, netbooks, or dedicated reading devices. The aim of it is to enable consumers everywhere to use the service to buy or borrow any text they wish. BookServer facilitates pay transactions, borrowing of books from libraries, and downloading free, publicly accessible books.

IA also offers researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public free access to historical collections converted to digital formats. Their archives include texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages. It also provides specialized services for adaptive reading and information access for the blind and other persons with disabilities. It collaborates with various institutions, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

IA founder, Brewster Kahle

It was founded by Brewster Kahle, a computer engineer, internet entrepreneur and activist, and a co-founder of the Web ranking system Alexa, which Amazon purchased in 1999. He told the Los Angeles Times he’s trying to build an archive that includes a copy of every print book ever published.

“There is always going to be a role for books.. We want to see books live forever,” said Kahle. To date IA reportedly has 20 scanning centers in 5 different countries and they currently host over 1.6 million titles. About half of them are Google scans of public domain texts that internet users have since uploaded to the IA network.

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3 responses to “Institutions working to make books accessible to the World

  1. Pingback: Global Treasures HOREZU Monastery of Horezu Romania | Elevate Christian Network :: Travel & Leisure·

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