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19th-Century Books From The British Library on Kindle for Free
Posted On February 25, 2010

How would you like to read a copy of a book by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen that looks exactly like the copies those authors held in their hands, ink fresh from the printers? How would you like to read some of the books that the first readers of those books probably wouldn't admit they read-the so-called "penny dreadfuls"? Last year, Microsoft completed its digitization obligations to The British Library (BL; and handed over 25 million pages in 65,000 19th-century books. As yet the digital copies, like the hard copies, have only been readable by visitors to The British Library Reading Room. Later this spring, however, the digital copies will be available to any and all users of the Amazon Kindle ebook reader for free. A print-on-demand service will provide optional paperback copies to readers in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and France. Expect to see the digital collection appear elsewhere as well. The Amazon arrangement is nonexclusive.

Several years ago, when it was trying to compete with the new Google Print (now Google Books) project, Microsoft made an arrangement to digitize out-of-print books at BL. The 2005 agreement led to a pilot project in 2006 followed by full production status in October 2007. In mid-2008, Microsoft called a halt to its Live Search Books. All that's left of Live Search is a referral to Bing. But, according to Samantha Tillett, project-in-service manager at BL, Microsoft "finished its physical scanning last year, completing the agreement. They gave us the content to do with what we wish and waived all their rights." Tillett called Microsoft's digitization efforts at BL "very generous." Jacob Lant, The British Library's press officer, pointed out that BL "provided the space and expertise in preservation and collection management, while the third-party scanning was paid by Microsoft."

The decision to aim Microsoft's effort toward 19th-century books, according to Lant, stemmed from the fact that BL had so many unique holdings. "An estimated 35 to 40 percent of the items are unique to us or inaccessible in other major libraries in the U.K. and around the world." The 65,000 editions soon coming to the Kindle will cover philosophy, history, poetry, and literature.

While downloaded online access to this content will be available anywhere the wireless Kindle is used, Kindle users connecting to Amazon facilities in the U.S. (, U.K. (, France (, and Germany ( can use the book icon on the device to order Print-on-Demand (POD) hardcopies of the works. Tillett expects the price to run about the same as for a hard copy book, but it may vary, since "the length of the books in the program ranges from 30 pages to 700 pages." She thought it should be "very cost effective and green, especially for Amazon." The Amazon POD effort will be handled by an Amazon affiliate, (originally CustomFlix Labs and BookSurge, Inc. and now a DBA for On-Demand Publishing LLC). According to Tillett, BL will receive some revenue from POD sales, which will help it fund more digitization.

Dame Lynne Brindley, chief executive of The British Library, pointed to the multilevel importance of the arrangement: "The British Library's deal with Amazon to make literary gems available through print-on-demand and the Kindle e-book reader is a landmark agreement in more ways than one. Unlocking 65,000 titles of 19th century material for new generations to discover, the deal also shows how innovative public sector institutions can keep moving ahead, even in a tough economic climate. Re-imagining our relationships with both private and public sector partners is absolutely essential for extending our ability to connect with our users. The British Library has much to offer major commercial organisations such as Amazon, giving us an opportunity to leverage the high value of our collections to ensure doors that might have been closed for lack of funding remain open."

Under Brindley's direction, BL is developing numerous "networked partnerships." The nonexclusive relationship with Amazon is only the beginning for this portion of BL's digital holdings. Tillett says, "At the moment we're talking to other potential partners and we expect to supply more content to Kindle and Amazon. We just want to make it more accessible." According to Lant, they're even talking-again-to Google Books. "It's always tricky. They've approached us in the past, but at the time the conditions on copyright and access were not in the right place then. We didn't agree. In the future, we might talk to them, but all deals must be on our terms as rightsholders."

Longstanding relationships with traditional information industry players are still being supported. "We do quite a lot of work with Gale and ProQuest to make content accessible," said Tillett. "ProQuest has the Early English Books Online and Gale has 18th Century Content Online. Those are still in place and we're still partnering. Gale also does 19th century newspapers in the U.K. that serves two purposes-broader access and our preservation effort." And The British Library has taken a leadership role in the debate and efforts to archive "born digital" content.

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By barbara quint3/1/2010 8:47:21 PM

I asked a representative of Amazon's CreateSpace subsidiary to answer some questions for this NewsBreak. My fault, i'm afraid, that i didn't give them enough lead time to make the NewsBreak deadline, but here are some further comments.

Amanda Wilson
PR Manager, CreateSpace

1. What other “freebies” does the Kindle already carry? I dimly recall that Project Gutenberg material would run on it.

If referring to other free content available on the Kindle, there are thousands of public domain books available in the Kindle store, including many classics which are free. Additionally, customers can use many different sites (, Google, Internet Archive, FeedBooks, etc.) and in a variety of formats, which can be read on Kindle.

2. How does the process of downloading to the Kindle work? All done through a connection to Amazon?

Amazon built its own wireless delivery system, Amazon Whispernet, that now provides wireless coverage in over 100 countries. It’s a seamless experience to customers – no annual contract, no monthly fees, no hunting for a hotspot.

3. Will this free Kindle content also be available through Kindle-compatible devices like the iPhone?


4. How is Kindle selling in Europe? I notice the mention of U.S., UK, Germany, and another European country in the press release. Is Kindle restricted to those countries?

The vision for Kindle is to have every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds from anywhere in the world. We made a portable reader with wireless access to a global catalogue of books available in over 100 countries around the world. This is an audacious first step, and we will continue to innovate on behalf of our customers and expand our offerings – we know that there will be other steps, but we’re happy with where we are starting and we think our customers are too.

5. How will the print-on-demand option work? Can people order it from Kindle or off the Amazon website or both?

Customers can order physical copies of titles from the British Library online at and other channels.

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