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Books for All: Digital Libraries in the Developing World


Imagine for a moment life without Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Great Gatsby, or Shakespeare—no books at all. Imagine not even being able to read.

This is a reality for thousands of people. In Ghana, reading is still considered a luxury. This has to change, according to Mrs. Matilda Amissah Arthur, wife of Ghana’s Vice-President. Amissah-Arthur called for more political will to tackle the issue, saying that books are the cheapest and best carriers of knowledge in the country.

Over 700 million people around the world are illiterate, but there are a number of global projects underway to fight illiteracy by providing books to those in need.

The International Book Project (IBP) is one of these organizations. The IBP states that its mission is to “build global partnerships that foster cultural understanding and bring people together for common goals” through sustainable programs.

The IPB connects with partners on the ground, whether they be whole communities or specific schools, and distributes books in varying sizes of deliveries. Recently, they have sent shipments to Palestine, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and India, to name a few.

Access to books is no longer limited to physical copies. With the ever-growing use of smartphones in the developing world, digital access to books is becoming another avenue to spread knowledge and fight illiteracy.

A study conducted by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, found that 62% of those surveyed have begun reading more, now that they can access reading material on their mobile phones. One in three individuals surveyed said their children were reading more on their smartphones, and 90% said they planned to read more in the next year.

The study also found that “people read more when they read on mobile devices, that they enjoy reading more, and that people commonly read books and stories to children from mobile devices.” The study shows that mobile technology is a promising, if not slightly untapped, road to reading and can help improve knowledge and literacy.

Why, then, read on a mobile phone instead of an actual book? It is much cheaper. In Zimbabwe, a bestseller in paperback costs $12, while reading a book on a mobile phone costs only between 5 and 6 cents.

Library For All is an example of how digital libraries are being used to spread books throughout the developing world. Founded in order to address the lack of books in classrooms, this online library follows the same principles as other digital book providers: a mobile platform is cheaper than physically delivering books. Moreover, the organization uses a specific low-bandwidth network that is tailored to benefit the developing world.

Coupled with the growth of mobile technology, reading on mobile phones and access to digital libraries in the developing world proves to be a powerful emerging partnership. If mobile libraries like Library For All can partner with mobile technologies, and mobile devices continue to become available to the developing world, every person on earth might have access to books.

– Greg Baker

Sources: Ghana Web, The Guardian, International Book Project, Library for All
Photo: CNBC