Digitized books on Aceh - but are they accessible to Acehnese?

April 13, 2009, [MD]

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From Klaus Graf, via Open Access News, The Royal Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden has digitized more than 656 books in their collection about Aceh, in several languages (Indonesian, French, Dutch, etc). Their website, Aceh Books. This is exciting news for me, since I have found it very hard to access Indonesian language books after returning from Jakarta. I have often wished that there were some serious book scanning projects started in Indonesia, because the country has a history of some excellent fiction, and of course there are many important social science and other non-fiction books as well, that are crucial to understand the history and culture of the country. However, these often exist in very few copies, so that even Indonesians in one part of Indonesia cannot access them, unless they travel thousands of kilometers to Jakarta or other centers.

However, I am a bit concerned about how accessible these books are to Indonesians themselves. Part of the reason is that many libraries in Aceh were destroyed during the tsunami, and ideally people in Aceh would thus be able to access and read the books made available. However, currently they are only available as PDF-scans, the two books I tried were 60-80 MB downloads each. Having worked in Jakarta, I know that even in the best of circumstances, download speeds are extremely slow. In Jakarta, we spent a lot of money on a dedicated satellite connection, but it was still not fast - in the regional office in Tangerang, we shared an ISDN connection or similar, and even downloading e-mail was painfully slow.

There are already good interfaces for presenting scanned books online - I've previously written about Open Library (1, 2, 3), and their interface, which only shows one page at a time, might be a good option (also, it would enable people to find the books more easily - rather than having to know about a specific page for Aceh-related books). Another possibility would be to upload them to a place like Scribd as well, which "streams" PDFs. I haven't tested Scribd in a low-bandwidth environment, but I am assuming it would be far preferable to having to download 60MB. Of course, ideally, the books would be OCRed, and the text corrected by volunteers (or perhaps KITLV could pay some students in Aceh - Indonesian salaries are low), so that one could instead distribute text files weighing perhaps half a megabyte. (These can also be put on e-book readers, which would be important for me, if I wanted to read one of these in the future).

It would also be nice if KITLV could specify the copyright conditions of these books - some of them are old enough to be public domain, but some seem newer - does KITLV have special agreements? Am I allowed to upload them to Scribd, or do other things with them?

All in all, a great beginning, but hopefully these are questions they will think through - in collaboration with people on the ground in Aceh, who know far more than I do about what they need! I also keep hoping that some rich Indonesian (there are certainly enough of them!) will want their name immortalized through funding a large-scale book scanning project of the Indonesian heritage.

Stian (in Hong Kong, going to Guangzhou and South China Normal University today)

Stian HĂ„klev April 13, 2009 Toronto, Canada
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