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Bookmobiles, the village kitaabwala

Rajiv Theodore | August 16, 2004

The afternoon call of the muezzin breaks the silence in Dadri village on the outskirts of Delhi. The villagers stir out in the heat as a red Mahindra Scorpio approaches, throwing up a cloud of dust behind it.

"It's the kitaabwala," says one villager. These semi-rural folk are watching the unfolding of a revolution on wheels that is slowly reaching out to rural India.

Helped by the crowd, 70-year-old Roopwati hobbles toward the van and demands Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth. The van doesn't keep a copy but there's an easy way to remedy that. A command is given on a laptop, the signals are relayed and received by a dish antenna with KU band.

Then, it's printed and bound all in a few minutes. For a little less than Rs 20, the village woman gets the book she wanted saving an arduous journey possibly to a library or bookshop in nearby Delhi. Welcome to the world of Digital Bookmobiles.

In the United States Kahle's 'Bookmobiles' started by Brewster Kahle, a digital librarian, are gaining popularity rapidly. A book like Alice in Wonderland, for instance, is available for a dollar and a copy can be printed in 10 minutes.

"Books are the key to knowledge but they are no use if we hold on to it. Therefore, the moral of the story is digitise and replicate,'' says Dr Om Vikas who heads the Digital Library of India, Initiative, under the Department of Information Technology. India has a multiplicity of languages, scripts, manuscripts and fonts. "This forms a vast treasure of heritage,'' says Vikas.

Obviously, books are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible. It could be research tools, photographs, music, market information, trading, remote customer interaction, e-tutoring, e-publishing and even book fairs -- the list is endless. "Universal access to all human knowledge" is Kahle's ambitious goal.

How it works is that a book or manuscript is first scanned by a high-end Minolta BS 7000 scanner, (one hundred of them were recently donated by the Carnegie Mellon University, followed by a "cropper" treatment whereby all unwanted stains or needless images on the original text are deleted. Before being put on the web the manuscript passes through indigenously developed software called the Optical Corrector Recognizer, available currently in seven Indian languages.

It is a concept many developing countries like China and Egypt have also taken up enthusiastically. But India has taken a huge lead already. Thirty Bookmobiles will soon be on the road. Two are already driving around Delhi's fringe villages adjoining Uttar Pradesh. Phase two of the project, which is scheduled to take off soon, will cover Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

"By 2008 we will have covered the country", says V N Shukla, director, Special Applications at the Pune-based Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, which is executing this government sponsored project under the aegis of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. The project first went on the road in January 2003.

Shukla, who sometimes accompanies the Scorpio or the other digital library, a Maruti Versa, says it is a daunting task to manage a milling crowd of more than 200 people at any given time, who jostle for attention when they arrive at a village. "It has become immensely popular," he says.

The IT Ministry had given Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) for the first phase and another Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) will be allocated for the second phase. An investment of a couple of lakhs is all the van needs -- a printer, a cutter, a binder and a satellite dish for downloading, says Shukla. It takes only about 10 minutes, from start to finish to create a perfect bound book.

"It could be the most expensive book too, but when downloaded would cost a fraction of its print version," he said. More than 60,000 books have already been scanned and another 100,000 have been sent to India by Kahle.

Manufacturers Association of Information Technology President Vinnie Mehta said the new concept is extremely beneficial for the rural masses where even education courses can be downloaded and distributed where no schools, colleges or teachers exist. "It is time we moved away from the urban areas," says Mehta.

The Million Book Project, a joint venture between India, China, the Carnegie Mellon University and Kahle's Internet Archive is an offshoot of this new technology. The project is further linked to Kahle's e-books -- 17 million of them. The christening of the project took its cue from Kahle's unassuming legend painted on his vans, "1,000,000 Books Inside (soon)". The project is set to digitise one million public domain books and make them available in scanned format for anybody for free by next year.

After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982, Kahle designed supercomputers at Thinking Machines and later invented the Wide Area Information Servers, which was the net's first publishing system.

During the 1990s, WAIS got commercial and government publishers -- among them the New York Times, Encyclopedia Britannica and the US government's printing Internet archive. After selling WAIS to AOL, Kahle founded the Internet Archive, a non-profit company devoted to archiving and cataloging millions of websites.

The Bookmobile is one of the latest offerings from Internet Archive. Kahle said that 100,000 books have been sent to India where they are now being scanned. "They (Indian government) see that for the cost of scanning a book they can make it available to the entire country. So they are scanning up a storm, with a goal of 1 million books. In China, the same thing is happening. They are going to scan 100,000 books. The dream is of a library where you can have access to all the world's knowledge," Kahle said in a conversation to a website.

The giant question is how much this can be expanded. Information Technology Secretary, Kamal Kant Jaswal will soon review the entire project looking particularly at scaleability. "That is a weak link,'' says Jaswal. He believes that the project needs backing from a private entrepreneur to ensure it grows rapidly. "We have to find someone who can champion the cause of the project," he says.

A senior librarian at New Delhi's new Parliament library says costs can easily be kept under control. Scanning a book in India costs $4 compared to between $20 and $25 in the US. Part of the funding for public library systems in India could be canalised to create a brand new e-library and make it available to the remotest corner of the country for just Rs 20.

Obviously, there's an issue of copyright. But some librarians suggest that the project should stick to non-copyright books for the time being.   "Why should we bother about it when we have not even digitised all the public-domain books yet,'' he says.

Vikas says that 15,000 books in local language have already been scanned. "We have urged in different forums to reduce copyright from the present 60 years to 25 years so that more books are available to the people and finally help bridge the digital-divide that is plaguing the country."

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