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Access to books

22 December 2008

Our Comment for this week is an extract from this year's Nobel Laureate for Literature's lecture, in which he extols the virtues of the book and urges everyone, publishers in particular, to do everything they can to extend its availability. In many countries books are scarce and often unaffordable as well, yet they are of the utmost importance in educational terms and in enabling people to move themselves out of poverty.

The recent Penguin initiative in setting up the Penguin African Writers Series and two new prizes for African writing are an acknowledgement that publishers from the developed world should support publishing in developing countries. John Makinson, Chairman and CEO of Penguin says:

'Emerging markets are complicated. We may face regulatory issues that constrain our freedom to publish, censorship barriers that compromise our freedom of expression or simply cultural challenges that may lead us to do the wrong thing. Customers don't pay on time, you can't always get your money out, and local partners may be reliable, or they may not. It's really not easy. Yet our view here at Penguin is that we must persist, not just because of the potential for growth, and eventually profit, but also because we have a responsibility to share whatever knowledge and experience that we've gained with less developed publishing markets.'

Creative Commons, which we have written about a number of times on this site, seems to offer the best chance of moving things forward, as it opens up the possibility of licensing use of copyrighted work on a number of different bases, both commercial and non-commercial. As it becomes more widely used, it will open up the riches of the more mature publishing industries in the West for use by publishers and writers in developing countries.

As recently announced, Bloomsbury Academic will make its books freely available to students on the web, and it is to the web itself, that enormous source of knowledge and discussion, that we can turn for answers on this issue.

In spite of cheap computers developed for this use, there are however still millions of people for whom a computer is an impossible luxury. These people need books to help them work their way out of poverty. In this season it is worth remembering the work of the book charities. First there's BookAid International, which supplies much-needed books to developing countries, raising funds from publishers and the general public. Its 'Reverse Book Club' is a masterly idea - for just £5 (currently only $7.50) a month you can provide 48 books a year to go to where they're most needed. Then there's Bookpower, which supplies affordable, current tertiary-level textbooks for students and professionals in low-income countries, and EducationAid, which collects books in UK and sends them to schools and universities in countries which cannot afford them.

Even in the age of the Internet, books still have a key role in spreading knowledge and opening up the world.

BookAid International


Education Aid