Internet Archive Opens 1.6 Million E-Books to Kids with OLPC Laptops

[Updated 10/24/09 5:30 p.m. with additional interview material] All 1.6 million books digitized so far by the Internet Archive, the San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to the universal sharing of knowledge, will be available free to children around the world who have laptops built by the Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC), Internet Archive director Brewster Kahle announced today at the Boston Book Festival in downtown Boston.

Kahle said the announcement capped a year-long collaboration between the Internet Archive and the OLPC, which was founded by MIT computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte. “We’ve been working for the last year, since Nicholas invited us, to show that we can do this,” Kahle said. “We took all of the one million, six hundred thousand books and reformatted them to work with the OLPC laptop.”

The little green laptop, called the XO, “makes a really good reader,” said Kahle, an MIT-educated computer engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Internet Archive operates 20 scanning centers in five countries, where hundreds of workers are manually scanning books from public and university libraries, mostly public-domain works for which the copyright term has expired. It collects these books at its Open Access Text Archive. It also makes them available to people in developing nations via a network of satellite-connected print-on-demand “bookmobiles.”

Now the books will also be available to the roughly 750,000 to 1 million schoolchildren in developing countries who have XO laptops.

Brewster Kahle with an OLPC XO LaptopThe announcement came as part of a Boston Book Festival panel session on electronic books, entitled “The Future of Reading: Books Without Pages?” The session, held at the Boston Public Library, was part of a day-long celebration of books and reading funded by Boston’s State Street Bank and organized by Deborah Porter, a freelance book reviewer who is Negroponte’s significant other, according to the Boston Globe.

OLPC and the Archive have been working together for a year to get the books ready for display on the XO Laptop’s screen, which was designed to be visible in full sunlight and to use less energy than existing commercial LCD screens. The books are being converted into the open EPUB format, which will be cleanly readable on an XO after a coming update to the devices’ operating environment.

“We set a date of this meeting, a year ago, to say let’s get our books in really good shape,” Kahle told Xconomy after the panel session. “We were first going to do it in PDF, because the screen is a really a beautiful screen ,but we found that if we were really going to make it work for people in developing countries—if you want to get this to kids in Uruguay—then having a 10-kilobyte file beats the heck out of a 5-megabyte file. So we went and converted our books such that it would work. And the One Laptop Per Child guys went and made it so that those worked well on the XO. They are working very hard to make it so that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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28 responses to “Internet Archive Opens 1.6 Million E-Books to Kids with OLPC Laptops”

  1. I’m a little confused by this article, and can’t figure out just what the Internet Archive has done with its books to make them more usable by children with XO laptops. The Read Activity as shipped with the XO supports PDF only. Future versions will support more formats, but that will require a newer version of Sugar than you can put on an XO at this time. So if they aren’t using PDF, what format are they using?

    The Internet Archive has always offered books in PDF format, so their books have always been usable by children with XO laptops. What has changed?

  2. Mary Jo says:

    What about the millions of school children that could benefit here in the United States. Would our governemnt make a purchase for their own children? No, but we are willing to educate everyone else. I am not empathetic to those of third world countries, I think those childsren are very much in need. But our little Americans could use the benefit of these devices as well. Just a though and maybe, eventually they will be offered to the publi, even for individual purchase. Thanks!

  3. To Mary Jo’s point, Sugar Labs is working to make the Sugar software available for free to anyone that wants it through a project called Sugar on a Stick. You can copy Sugar to a USB thumb drive and boot your computer off the thumb drive to get the same Sugar environment that XO laptop users enjoy. This will work with older computers that would otherwise be almost worthless. Give your child a thumb drive with Sugar on it and he can use it at home, at school, at the library, etc. and take his work with him wherever he goes.

    XO laptops are sold at cost, and only in large quantities. Governments of developing countries have to buy them, although some get donated through the “Give One, Get One” program. It is unlikely they will ever be sold directly to consumers. However, with Sugar on a Stick, you can make any computer you have do what the XO does. You could buy your child an inexpensive netbook or a used computer, for instance.

    As for my own question, it turns out that the books will be in the EPUB format, which is supported by Sugar on a Stick but not yet supported on the XO. That upgrade is in the works. In the meantime children with XO’s can enjoy Internet Archive books in PDF format.

  4. Mary Jo says:

    James, thank you for the information on the Sugar on a Stick.
    I think I will investigate the possibilites of starting some type of program here in West Virginia (where I reside). Seems as though the children in our rural areas would really benefit from a smaller version of a “Give One, Get One” Program. Please let me know if you or any others may have some advice regarding heading up a Local Program of this nature. All the Best!

  5. mia says:

    We bought 2 for our kids though the buy one give one. As my husband says “they are cool but they suck” in a world of high speed internet they feel like it takes forever to get a program up and running. My kids get bored and move on to other things.
    For kids who don’t otherwise have access to computers, they are great. But for Tech savy kids, the feeling of “I have my own computer” is quuickly replaced with “why won’t it do anything?”

    Ours have been sitting in a box for months, unused. The only part that the kids will play with is the webcam and sending messages back and forth to each other.

  6. mia, if you are not using your XO computers, please consider offering them to a charity organization. We are using XO laptops in our school project in India. See our website (mainly in french) :
    Contact me if interested (mvalentin AT We have an address in the USA, from where we forward the XOs to India.

  7. Mia, the XO laptop makes an excellent book reader and as you can see from the article there are over a million free books to choose from, including many children’s books and all the classics. One of the more selfish reasons I participated in G1G1 was to get a reader for free etexts for less than the cost of a Kindle. The fact that a kid somewhere would get one just like it was a bonus.

    Sugar and the XO were designed to help children with their education. Given a chance, they will do just that. If your kids have a need for speed, have them try Sugar on a Stick, which will give them the same environment on any computer.

  8. Mary Jo says:

    Mia~ I’d glady purchase these XOs from you. Please let me know if you are interested.
    You may contact me on this post or directly at [email protected].

  9. Has anyone taken a look at these books to see how many of them would be of any use to children? If they’re public-domain texts, they’re likely to be mostly 19th-century books in English. A quick look on the Internet Archive turns up a lot of things like Greek and Latin grammars and botanical catalogues of German wildflowers. Will the children who use OLPC Laptops have to wade through a million books like that in search of something useful to them?

  10. Benjamin,

    Check out this link:

    There are books in languages other than English too. Sugar has an Activity called “Get Books” that makes it easy to find free books on the Internet and download them. There is no need to wade through millions of books to find something interesting. The website itself has a Search function that can guide them to books about subjects they’re interested in, as well as classics like the Wizard of Oz books and others.

    Also, there is nothing to stop a country that has adopted Sugar or the XO for their children from scanning their own books and submitting them to the Archive.

  11. Bryan Allen says:

    I have one of the original Give-1 Get-1 XOs. Similar to a couple of the other posters, I fail to see what’s particularly significant about this announcement. Since the XO project is for all practical purposes moribund, the project having laid off many of its people, saying that ‘in the future’ one of the Activities will support EPUB format for books is little but optimistic speculation. I went to the named website and was able to read texts there; they have a variety of formats, several of which were already accessible to my XO. Unfortunately, like almost everything else about the XO, the experience of reading a book on it is disappointing. Even with the radio and backlight off, the machine only runs for about four hours on its battery. Long before it runs out of juice, it’ll lose its key bindings and require a reboot. And the reboot, network startup, restart of Terminal to enable swap, restart of Firefox, and then turning off the radio and backlight take a LONG time, perhaps 10 minutes. A old PDA (I have a Treo 90) is a far superior eBook reader.

  12. Bryan,

    If the XO is disappointing as an ebook reader much of the problem is the limitations of the PDF format, which is not well suited for reading on a screen. The epub format is designed specifically for ebooks and should give a much better experience.

    If you want to have a better reading experience on the XO go to and download Read Etexts. This is a reader designed for Project Gutenberg plain text files, but it can also be used for other text files and the RTF files from the Baen Free Library. There are some 28,000 titles in Project Gutenberg, including all the classics. Plain text files read better than PDFs.

    Also, all the steps you mention as part of the boot process are exagerated. There is no need to enable swap (the XO is designed not to use it for a reason) and there is no need to do anything with Firefox, since most XO user’s don’t install it, preferring to use the Browse Activity which comes with Sugar. Turning off the radio and dimming the backlight are optional steps which don’t take long at all.

    Of course the XO is much more than an ebook reader, so comparing it to devices that only do ebok reading is not a fair comparison.

  13. Barbara says:

    I need to know how I can get involved with this program. I send school supplies to a village in Senegal and my kids would love to get their hands on these. I don’t know to get these laptops to them. Who do I get in touch with and how do I do this? How do you get them? Any help would be greatly appreciated.