Books in Browsers: Brewster Kahle and E-Books

There is a lot of discussion in the genealogy world about e-books.

Of course, there are large book digitization projects: Google Books and Internet Archive being the two best known. (In 2008, Microsoft cancelled a book digitization project that had scanned more than 750,000 books.) While Google has gotten into some legal hot water by making books that are under copyright available under an agreement with the Writers’ Guild, which has not held up in court, the vast majority of books are in the public domain.

A great summary of where we are in terms of e-books is the keynote speech (text and slides | see above for the video) that Brewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive gave at the Books in Browsers conference in October 2010. Kahle talks about the transformation from a paper book orientation, through a device orientation (the Kindle, for example), to a device-independent (browser) orientation. His goal is to make books available to all. He does this via digitizing books and making them available as follows:

  • Public Domain – Free – The Internet Archive now has over 2.8 million titles available for free
  • Under copyright (but out of print) – Borrow
  • In Print – Buy

One thing that sets the Internet Archive apart from Google Books, is that most of the titles (at least most that I have seen) are available in multiple formats. There’s PDF, of course, but also .epub (works in the Apple iBooks and Barnes and Noble reader software and the Nook and other dedicated readers), .mobi (works in the Kindle reader software, the Kindle portable device, and other readers), black and white PDFs, HTML, and several other formats.

E-books have transformed genealogical research. If you haven’t used one, I encourage you, the next time you are looking for a local history, to consider using Google Books or Internet Archive. If the book was published in the US prior to 1923, it should in the public domain, and you may find it for free on Google Books or the Internet Archive now or in the future.