Free the eBook: making digital books available for free around the world

13 June 2017 Comment

Thanks to the digitisation efforts of our partners, there are many classic books (such as Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina...) you can find on Europeana and read online for free. For the past 5 months, we have been paying tribute to some of them on social media as part of #AllezLiterature, our latest campaign dedicated to the written word. As we are now wrapping up the campaign and learning from its challenges, we take a look at other inspiring initiatives around the world making digital books and texts available for free.

Image: Madame Bovary,Gustave Flaubert, BNF, Public Domain

For educators and students…

In May, the Library of Congress announced that it will make 25 million records from its catalogue available to download for free on their website and on data.org. This is the Library’s largest release of records in its history, including 519,429 eBooks (although some are only available to users on campus). Previously accessible through a paid subscription, these resources spanning 45 years are now available to anyone for cultural, historical or literary research. Making them easily accessible and downloadable for free encourages use of the data for the formation of new knowledge. ‘The Library of Congress is our nation’s monument to knowledge and we need to make sure the doors are open wide for everyone, not just physically but digitally too’, says Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

In 2015, President Obama and the Digital Public Library of America launched the Open eBooks programme to provide students from low-income families across the US with greater access to eBooks. Gathering thousands of titles, this initiative included open content from the DPLA’s extensive catalogue, but also top-selling books in copyright donated by publishers (such as Bloomsbury, Hachette, Penguin Random House) representing $250 millions in donations.

Image: OPEN eBOOKS homepage

Open access repositories from publishers are committed to establishing a world-class digital learning environment. UCL Press, for instance, believes in ‘the opportunity to revolutionise how – and how widely – knowledge is disseminated’. They allow people to browse for books, journals and teaching materials (mostly in the field of scientific publications), regardless of their ability to pay. In May, they invited UCL academics to submit textbook proposals for any discipline taught at UCL in order to expand their textbook publishing programme.

… art lovers...

Last month, New York’s Guggenheim Museum also made more than 200 digitized art books, exhibition catalogues and monographs available to download in PDF and ePub formats. They are now available on the Internet Archive, where people can read about art movements, learn more about artists, or simply look at the images in high quality. Not ideal for coffee table book lovers - but really spot on for everyone researching art history. The Guggenheim isn’t the first American museum to make their archive more accessible online: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Getty’s virtual library have done the same in recent years.

… and even children!

In France, about 4,500 eBooks in ePub format are available to download on Gallica, the digital library project by the National Library of France (BNF). But these resources are not all aimed at experienced readers: they also include children’s books. Recently, the Gallicadabra app has been launched for kids to discover 30 stories from literary heritage which are no longer available in a printed form. From tales to illustrated books, these texts (all focusing on animals) are accompanied by a short presentation placing them back in their creation context.

Image: Gallicadabra iPad screenshot

While bricks-and-mortar museums and libraries work with publishers and technology partners to release content electronically, digital projects are making public domain collections available online too. Project Gutenberg offers 54,000 free eBooks in English but also French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Finnish... and 40 other languages. Similarly, Project Runeberg gathers free electronic editions of classic Scandinavian literature, and the online library Runivers provides free access to books and journals from major Russian libraries and state archives.

Has your institution made any books available for download? What feedback did you get from it? Let us know your thoughts!