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 kids can search on and find those books, ane one million six hundred thousand now will be avaible to the one millions users of the One Laptop Per Child. We’re really psyched about that.”

Kahle says the Internet Archive books will be available through the reading “activity” on the XO Laptop. (Software on the laptop is organized into groups called activities pertaining to different types of creative and educational projects.) In an upcoming version of the XO’s basic software, the reading activity will also allow students to browse books from a variety of providers, Kahle says, including libraries and commercial publishers.

He drew an explicit contrast between these approach and the more closed and controlled e-book sales models being forwarded by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other distributors. But getting new, copyrighted books onto platforms that don’t provide strict digital rights management protections is still a tricky business proposition—so for now, the book sharing arrangement between the Archive and OLPC is restricted to free, public-domain books.

“The idea is to make it so that it’s not just these closed companies with contracts between them but to make a web of books,” says Kahle. “Can we make One Laptop Per Child a participant in this open world? We are working to try to help that happen. In this first phase it’s just going to be the public domain materials.”

One criticism of the Internet Archive’s book digitization effort, which involves the use of optical character recognition software to transform images into digital text, is that the process results in numerous typographical errors. But last Monday, Kahle notes, the Internet Archive demonstrated a Wiki-like system that allows readers to instantly correct typos they find in the organization’s e-books. “This is all the advantage of openness,” Kahle says. (The demonstration was part of a larger rollout of the Internet Archive’s new Book Server project, envisioned as a centralized clearinghouse for e-book distribution that would provide publishers and libraries with an alternative to Amazon, Google, and the like.)

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

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