A universal e-book library

by Roopinder Singh

LIFE, the iconic American magazine, gained a new life after over 1,860 issues, covering the years 1936 to 1972, were digitised and put online. Computers and the Internet together have created an atmosphere where we expect knowledge and entertainment at our fingertips, not by turning pages, but by tapping at the keyboard. Increasingly, we see that this trend is impacting something that we have taken for granted for centuries – books, the traditional repositories of wisdom, and more.

Books … we love the content, the feel of the paper they are printed on, what they convey to us and how they enrich us. Yet, books in classical form have limitations imposed by the very factors that make them so alluring – they can get damaged, cost money to print and distribute and have to be physically taken from one person to another, etc.

A page grab of the Google Books home page

E-books, or electronic books, promise to transform the content into bits and bytes that can be freely transmitted to all the corners of the connected earth, and beyond, for that matter. You can read what you want, when you want to, and where, provided you have an e-book reader, computer or even a mobile phone handy. A universal e-book library seems within reach.

The Internet giant Google has been in news recently because it is engaged in litigation defending its right to digitise books, following an agreement it penned in 2004 with a number of top university libraries to scan their collections. Over one crore books have been scanned by Google Books and this has made it the owner of the largest collection of titles in an electronic format.

This very ownership has raised the hackles of communities that are defending the rights of authors and copyright holders, as a result of which Google has given full access only to those books whose copyright has expired, or those whose copyright it has bought.

Many books are out of print, but have valid copyrights, which are sometimes difficult to establish. Such books are called “orphans”. Google has made an agreement through which Book Search users can read, download and print out-of-copyright books, freely.

Those books that aren’t actively being published or sold, but are within the copyright period, would, under the latest agreement, be digitised and become available online for preview and purchase.

The income would be shared between various parties. Right now, Google has almost come out of a long and complicated legal battle. Its doggedness is about to pay it rich dividends, since no one can compare with Google Books in the sheer number of titles that they have online, whether in limited view or otherwise.

However, Google is not the first mover in this field, nor is it the only player. Long before Google came up with the idea, other digitisation endeavours were underway, including the Library of Congress’s American Memory project, Project Gutenberg, the Million Book Project and the Universal Library.

Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitise and archive cultural works and to “encourage the creation and distribution of e-books.” It was started by Michael S. Hart in 1971 and is considered the oldest digital library. Effort is made to provide these texts in standard, long-lasting, open formats that can be used on almost any device – computer, Kindle, Sony Reader, or iPhone. Although pioneering, the project has just over 30,000 free e-books to read.

Microsoft has been an also-ran in this endeavour. It started Live Search Books, a project similar to Google Books, in late 2006, but abandoned it in May 2008. All was not lost, since the scanned books are now available on Internet Archive, a non-profit organisation.

The Europeans digitised over 30 lakh objects, including video, photos, paintings, audio, maps, manuscripts, printed books, and newspapers from the past 2,000 years of European history from over 1,000 archives in the European Union. The French National Library’s Gallica links to about eight lakh digitised books, newspapers, manuscripts, maps and drawings, etc.

Lakhs of books to read, and how many readers? Well, lakhs, even crores. Just a day before this article was written, Project Guttenberg showed that 1,01,122 books were downloaded. And the most popular authors? No surprise there: In the last month, the top five downloads were Charles Dickens (48,591), Mark Twain (40,703), Jane Austen (30,929), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (29,907) and William Shakespeare (28,163). Google, after digitising the Life magazine, has added many others to it its repertoire, and it is a pleasure to browse through them.

Amazon’s Kindle2 has triggered new interest in e-books and it has competitors like Sony nipping at its heels. What exactly is Kindle? Well, this e-book reader is lighter than an average paperback, while being as thin as a magazine. A wireless network connects it in over 100 countries. It can store over a thousand books and the new text-to-speech features reads out to you. As of now, 2,30,000 books and many newspapers and magazines are available. Incidentally, Kindle is also a software program that allows you to download book on to your computers or mobile phones.

Sony has its own readers which compete with Kindle. Sony has a good library also. Its readers have some special features that make them attractive. Other competitors include the iLiad, the Cybook Gen3, the Barnes & Noble nook and the Readius device from Polymer Vision.

Many people use personal digital assistants like Palm TX for downloading and reading e-books, but the main distinction that e-books have is the e-ink screen, a kind of electronic paper based on research started at the MIT Media Lab. The ultra-low power consumption screen is black and white and you can read without glare, even in bright sunlight. The image is stable, unlike computer or phone screens, it does not need to be refreshed constantly. It reflects ambient light rather than emitting its own light. Thus, it is much superior to other displays.

As we see a profusion of e-books and readers, the manufacturers will have to move towards universalisation of standards in technology and in ensuring that copyright violations do not take place. The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s latest book, can be downloaded free and publishers are up in arms against the distribution of pirated books through the Net.

This, however, is an old battle, albeit in a new form. Pirated editions of the book are available in Mumbai, Delhi and Chandigarh off the roadside stalls, in the conventional form. Technology is a tool, which can be used positively, or negatively.

As we move towards making books more accessible through digitisation, the idea of a universal library does not seem so utopian. The sheer reach of the electronic medium is staggering, and the written word continues to carry weight, whether it is printed on paper or read on screen.

This article was printed in The Tribune on November 27, 2009

  1. Sir, I read your article in ‘The Tribune’ and once again on your blog. I enjoyed every word of it. I agree with what you have written. There has been a revolution of sorts in the field of books. The lastest addition being the Kindle Book Reader.
    But then as you correctly mentioned technology can be used both positively as well as negatively. It all depends on our intentions how we use something.
    Books continue to stay my best friends anyway.

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