Better World Libraries, Internet Archive Partner, Acquires Better World Books

“The Internet Archive (IA) on November 6 announced that its longtime not-for-profit partner, Better World Libraries, had acquired Better World Books, a mission-driven for-profit bookseller that has donated almost $29 million and more than 26.5 million books to global literacy programs during the past two decades. Better World Books’ Library Discards and Donations program, launched in 2004, has also been a major contributor to the company’s efforts to redistribute or recycle an additional 326 million books. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

Better World Books offices, leadership, and operations will remain unchanged, according to the announcement, which described an alignment of goals between organizations focused on literacy and universal access to information. When libraries and other organizations weed or deaccession titles and donate to Better World Books, selected titles will now be directed into IA’s massive book digitization program, which now has the capacity to digitize a million books per year.

“One of the biggest challenges facing libraries today is responsibly removing materials from their shelves so they can bring in more desirable materials or repurpose space to fit community needs,” Jim Michalko, Better World Books board member and former president of The Research Libraries Group, explained in the announcement. “Now, libraries can provide books to Better World Books knowing that a digital copy will be created and preserved if one doesn’t yet exist.”

During an interview at the 2019 Charleston Conference in South Carolina this month, IA founder and digital librarian Brewster Kahle told LJ’s Lisa Peet that the acquisition—and its pipeline of titles for digitization—would also facilitate broader ongoing efforts at IA to link internet content with relevant, reliable source material.

“What we’re trying to do is weave books into the Internet itself, starting with Wikipedia,” Kahle said. “The idea is to turn all of [’s] footnotes into live links, so that anyone who wants to go deeper from a Wikipedia article, can click on a footnote and open a book, right on the right page.”

IA has an ongoing relationship with Wikipedia. Notably, IABot crawls Wikipedia pages searching for broken links and repairs those links by finding an archived version of the original webpage using IA’s Wayback Machine. To date, the bot has repaired more than ten million links.

“Now, we have a robot going through [Wikipedia] and augmenting book citations with links to books in the Internet Archive,” Kahle said. “That, we think, is a big deal for usability. And it helps battle misinformation by taking the best, vetted information that we have and making that accessible to Wikipedia writers and also readers. The next puzzle beyond that is ‘how do you go and scale that up?’ We now have over 120,000 Wikipedia citations pointing to over 40,000 books, but we want to get to millions of links going to millions of books. The way we’re going to get there is by working really closely with Better World Books.”

IA has already digitized over four million books, most of which are public domain titles published before 1923, Kahle said. Its leadership aims to digitize four million more during the next four years—primarily 20th-century content obtained through the new Better World Books pipeline, as well as direct donations from libraries and other sources.

“We’re really excited by this announcement,” Laura Irmscher, chief of collections for Boston Public Library (BPL), told Peet, noting that BPL has worked with both Better World Books and IA for several years. “Any way that we make more information accessible to more people, we’re a fan of, and with this [acquisition] we see a great way for materials that are leaving our collection to live on.”

Links to reliable sources will help “fulfill the promise of the internet as a library that people can depend on for reference work,” Kahle said. In this case, digitized books will be used “less for beach reading, more for jumping in and out of books—fact checking.”

Kahle, whose foundation provides primary funding for IA’s digitization efforts, said that misinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election cycle had increased the organization’s sense of urgency, in part leading to this acquisition of Better World Books.

“We can’t wait anymore,” he said. “We need to have the best materials within reach of anyone looking for some semblance of truth. As librarians, we know that what is on the net, often, is not the best [source].” Often, the best sources are in library collections, he added. “So let’s get libraries involved in helping the Republic. That was a major motivator to me and to the whole Internet Archive staff…. We’re now in 2019, and we still don’t have books woven into the web.””