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; www.bl.uk) 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. (www.amazon.com), U.K. (www.amazon.co.uk), France (www.amazon.fr), and Germany (www.amazon.de) 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, CreateSpace.com (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.