Internet Archive Opens 1.6 Million E-Books to Kids with OLPC Laptops

[Updated 10/24/09 5:30 p.m. with additional interview material] All 1.6 million books digitized so far by the Internet Archive, the San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to the universal sharing of knowledge, will be available free to children around the world who have laptops built by the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC), Internet Archive director Brewster Kahle announced today at the Boston Book Festival in downtown Boston.

Kahle said the announcement capped a year-long collaboration between the Internet Archive and the OLPC, which was founded by MIT computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte. “We’ve been working for the last year, since Nicholas invited us, to show that we can do this,” Kahle said. “We took all of the one million, six hundred thousand books and reformatted them to work with the OLPC laptop.”

The little green laptop, called the XO, “makes a really good reader,” said Kahle, an MIT-educated computer engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Internet Archive operates 20 scanning centers in five countries, where hundreds of workers are manually scanning books from public and university libraries, mostly public-domain works for which the copyright term has expired. It collects these books at its Open Access Text Archive. It also makes them available to people in developing nations via a network of satellite-connected print-on-demand “bookmobiles.”

Now the books will also be available to the roughly 750,000 to 1 million schoolchildren in developing countries who have XO laptops.

Brewster Kahle with an OLPC XO LaptopThe announcement came as part of a Boston Book Festival panel session on electronic books, entitled “The Future of Reading: Books Without Pages?” The session, held at the Boston Public Library, was part of a day-long celebration of books and reading funded by Boston’s State Street Bank and organized by Deborah Porter, a freelance book reviewer who is Negroponte’s significant other, according to the Boston Globe.

OLPC and the Archive have been working together for a year to get the books ready for display on the XO Laptop’s screen, which was designed to be visible in full sunlight and to use less energy than existing commercial LCD screens. The books are being converted into the open EPUB format, which will be cleanly readable on an XO after a coming update to the devices’ operating environment.

“We set a date of this meeting, a year ago, to say let’s get our books in really good shape,” Kahle told Xconomy after the panel session. “We were first going to do it in PDF, because the screen is a really a beautiful screen ,but we found that if we were really going to make it work for people in developing countries—if you want to get this to kids in Uruguay—then having a 10-kilobyte file beats the heck out of a 5-megabyte file. So we went and converted our books such that it would work. And the One Laptop Per Child guys went and made it so that those worked well on the XO. They are working very hard to make it so that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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