Digitizing Cultural Heritage

A few weeks ago, our CTO Michael and I met Doug from Digital Transitions, a company that makes the high-end camera equipment that libraries and archives use to digitize cultural heritage. We discovered that their office is only a few blocks from ours near Times Square, and he kindly offered to let us bring over any books that needed to be digitized for the library.

But finding books to digitize is more challenging than you might think. For anyone who’s not from a publishing background, here’s a quick crash course of what I’ve learned about publishing since I joined Library For All. Digital book rights are complex, confusing, and often the people involved don’t even know who owns the digital rights to a book. Unlike songs, which music labels can distribute in any format (including record, cassette tape, CD, and mp3), digital rights in the book industry are not automatically assigned to publishers. In 2002, in a court case of Random House vs. Rosetta Books, the U.S. court ruled that publishers must get permission from the author to re-publish a book digitally. This decision prompted a frenzy of contract renegotiations, but many older books got left behind and never were distributed as ebooks.

Of course, even older books are often in the public domain, and freely available to anyone on websites such asProject Gutenberg. As a result, almost all popular works before 1923 (94%) are available for free as ebooks. Books published in the last decade are usually distributed digitally by their publishers. But many of the books in between the years of 1923 and 2002 are not available as ebooks. In fact,fewer than 10% of New York Times-reviewed books published between 1930 and 1950 are currently available as ebooks.

So there are many classic books that we simply can’t legally put in the library, as much as we might like to. At least not yet. As much as we might like to take out-of-print books and digitize them ourselves, it’s very important that we respect the legal rights of the authors, even if they are often unknown and hard to find. But luckily, there is enough great digital content out there that we do have, and will be obtaining soon, that we–and our readers in Haiti–will be busy for quite awhile!


So what did we digitize? Luckily, our partner Sylvia, who works with the wonderful non-profit En Classe in the Democratic Republic of Congo, brought back a series of beautiful French children’s books that they wanted to donate to the library. Michael and I brought all sixteen of them into Digital Transitions on a rainy Tuesday evening, and he showed us how to work the camera. Once we learned how to operate the system, we were able to digitize each book in under a minute! We made high-quality images of each page, and then pieced them together into one PDF file to make them into books again.

One of the things I love about working at Library For All is leveraging technology, content and ideas from a wide range of partners to create a unified library experience. Most of what we need to deliver books to children already exists in some part of the world: amazing books, technology, equipment, low-cost tablets, and cell phone networks. Our goal is to find each piece of the puzzle and bring them together to create a simple, elegant digital library that students in the developing world can intuitively use to discover new books.