What is happening with Universal Library? Open letter to Dr. Raj Reddy at CMU

May 3, 2010, [MD]

I am very interested in book scanning projects, and especially in making books in different languages available to the world. I've written before about my enthusiasm around the OpenLibrary project, and also my wish to find out more about the process/get involved. Since then, there have been many improvements in interface, additions of new books etc, but I still wish the process was more transparent.

I was also very excited when I first heard about Universal Library, which promised access to a huge range of books in Chinese, Indic languages and Arabic. However, the interface was extremely difficult to use, thus rendering this treasure-trove inaccessible to those who need it (indeed, how many Indians or Chinese have even heard about this project?). This seems like a criminal waste, when the hard work of scanning the books has already been completed! I've argued previously that OpenLibrary and Universal Library should join forces, given that the Open Library already has a great interface/infrastructure.

Yet nothing seems to be happening around Universal Library - the website still has not been updated since 2007(!), and now most of the links to books seem to be broken. There are some interesting tidbits: it seems like they are indeed working together with Open Content Alliance, and a bit over 40,000 books have been added to the Internet Archive. This is great news, and enables me to read books like this. However, the process seems to have stalled - the last import was 189 days ago. And there is very little meta-data enabling you to browse or find interesting books.

I also found that the Chinese chapter based at Zhejiang University seems to be very active – all the information there is in Chinese, but I found descriptions of a national meeting to be held this year, hiring several people, having more university libraries start scanning, etc. However, much of it seemed like it was designed for a platform that was closed to non-participating institutions, and indeed, when I search among the "classical works" on their website (which should not have copyright issues) and click on a book, I get "Your IP does not have permission to access this".

So again, I think this project has amazing potential, and indeed since much of the scanning has been done, it seems almost criminal to leave it without making those books available to the world. I wrote an e-mail to the project founder Dr. Raj Reddy at Carnegie Mellon back in November 2009, to ask about the progress, and never heard back. (I also wrote to the head of the project in India, Dr. Balakrishnan, to ask about this, but also did not hear back from him).

Whether these two distinguished professors, who have made great contributions to opening up information, respond to my private e-mail, is not important at all. But I think everyone in China, and India, and the US (whose governments all spent significant amounts of money to enable this project) deserve to know how it is going. If there are some obstacles to enabling the free and easy access to these books – perhaps we can help! The open community is a pretty amazing and resourceful community, if you give us a chance!

Below is a reprint of my letter to Dr. Raj Reddy.

Dear Professor Reddy,

I am long-term advocate of open education and open access, and I conduct research on international OER projects. I am also very interested in language learning, and making sure that all cultures and languages benefit from the exciting new possibilities of the Internet and communications technology.

I first heard about Universal Library at a conference of international academies of science in Shanghai one and a half years ago, and I was very excited. The ability to access the rich heritage of Chinese and Indian books online would have a huge significance both to people in those countries, but also people around the world who study these languages, and have problems finding source materials. I speak Chinese fluently, and am currently learning Hindi, so this was also of much interest to me personally.

However, I am writing to you to enquire about the progress of this project. When I visit it today, the last progress report is still from 2007 - more than two years ago. The interface is very unwieldy, and gives many error messages such as

Software error:

Can't get http://www.cadal.zju.edu.cn/Reader.action?bookNo=13055757 -- 404 Not Found at /usr/lib/cgi-bin/ulibcgi/ulibreader2/showStructureInchange.pl line 24.

For help, please send mail to the webmaster (lavanyap@cmu.edu), giving this error message and the time and date of the error.

-- Worse, although TIFF and DJVU might be great formats for storing high-resolution archival versions of the books, they are not very suitable for display - most people do not have access to these plugins, and it is very cumbersome to use. The Open Library (http://openlibrary.org/), which is a project with very similar goals and ideas, have developed wonderful software for user friendly display of books. Ideally, since the books are outside of copyright, it would also be great to provide PDF downloads for people who want to read on other devices (this is of course especially important in developing countries such as India, where internet accessibility is very limited).

I think this is an incredibly inspiring project, and I am very excited about it. However, I am concerned that it seems to have stagnated. A large amount of books (1M Chinese and 60K Indian?) have already been scanned and are available - it would be a huge shame if the last step wasn't taken to make this freely and easily available to the constituency.

I would love to hear how this project is progressing. If there are technical challenges, I am sure the free and open communities would be happy to assist, if only a call for such assistance were issued.

Very best, Stian Haklev Ontario Institute for Studies in Education University of Toronto

Stian Håklev May 3, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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