E-rara.ch: Ancient Books, Public Domain and Moral Barriers

Accessibility 4 All by Claude AlmansiContents


The e-rara.ch platform, launched mid-March, has digitized and is digitizing ancient books at several Swiss libraries. As I am writing this, e-rara.ch already offers 563 e-books in its 16th century collection and 307, of various dates but all in the public domain, in its thematic collections: 162 about astronomy, and 145 about architecture and urbanism.

Like the e-codices portal of digitized ancient manuscripts (see Rare Ancient Manuscripts Online at E-codices), e-rara.ch is a project of the Swiss E-lib.ch – Swiss electronic library program.

Some e-rara.ch books

Among the works offered: 25 booklets and pamphlets by Calvin. James Gibbs’ classical Book of architecture containing designs of buildings and ornaments (1739), with the fascinating relation between the plates themselves and their verbal descriptions in the  introduction (as this is also a masterly example for the text alternatives to images required nowadays by web accessibility norms, Hartwig Thomas and I made a textual transcript of this introduction in gibbs-architecture.wikispaces.com).

And then there is, from the Basel University Library, Machumetis Saracenorum principis, eiusque successorum vitae, ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran…, the first printed edition (1543?) of the 12th century Latin translation of the Coran made by team lead by Robert of Ketton, edited by Melanchthon and Bibliander: they cautiously added several virulent anti-Muslim comments by Catholic scholars in part 2, possibly in the hope to assuage Mother Church. However Pope Gregroy XVI condemned it all the same (see “Index librorum prohibitorum … Gregorii xvi … jussu editus,” 1862).

Illuminated first letter of the Coran; on the left, the words Symbolum Mahumeticum

Detail from the first Sura of the Coran in the Latin translation published by e-rara.ch. Click on the image to see the full page.

So far only the first two parts of Machumetis Saracenorum principis, eiusque successorum vitae, ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran… are available on e-rara.ch. But the e-rara.ch Basel team will also digitize the third part, which – according to its description in Griechischer Geist aus Basler Pressen – contains a preface by Luther. Update April 12, 2010: this third part has now been digitized (see the comment to this post for more info).

Accessibility and usability

E-rara.ch is already great for preservation, but as to usability and accessibility, for the time being, the digitized  books are only offered as image scans, either in a viewer or as downloadable PDF. Thus, it is impossible to search them, and they are fully inaccessible to blind people: like gallica.fr at the end of the last millennium. In an e-mail reply to a query about a text version made with optical character recognition, Dr. Franziska Geisser, e-rara.ch’s project lead, wrote:

We will implement OCR, i.e. the “hidden” option allowing a full text search, at some stage, at least for 19th century books.

This choice of hidden text, which will go on excluding blind readers and making copying awkward for all, seems odd.

E-rara’s terms of use

This accessibility/usability problem could be easily solved by uploading the texts to the Internet Archive, where they would be automatically and efficiently OCRed. The resulting text could then be proof-read to eliminate OCRing mistakes. But one may not, because of e-rara.ch’s terms of use. Until March 29, 2010, they read:

Les documents publiés dans le portail e-rara.ch sont accessibles gratuitement pour un usage privé, ou encore à des fins de recherche et d’enseignement. Toute exploitation commerciale est interdite. Des données ou des tirages isolés peuvent être diffusés, accompagnés des présentes conditions d’utilisation, et sous réserve de leur observation. Le stockage de ces documents sur un autre serveur est soumis à une autorisation écrite de la direction du projet e-rara.ch.
Creative Commons License

Les documents numériques sont publiés sous la licence Creative-Commons suivante:
Le format d’affichage est généré à partir d’images de haute résolution (en principe 300 dpi) au format Tiff. Ces images (masters) sont gérées et archivées par les bibliothèques qui conservent les documents originaux. Leur achat et leur utilisation sont soumis aux règlements tarifaires des bibliothèques concernées.

(Diigo cached copy archived on 2010-03-29)

Informal translation:

Documents published in the e-rara.ch portal can be accessed at no cost for private use, or for research and teaching. Any commercial exploitation is forbidden. Single data or print-outs can be shared, (provided they are) accompanied by the present terms of use, and on condition of their application. Saving these documents on another server requires a written authorization from the director of the e-rara.ch project.
The digital documents are published under the following Creative Commons license:
[in English:
The display format is generated from high resolution (normally 300 dpi) Tiff images. These images (masters) are administered and archived by the libraries that keep the original documents. Their acquisition and use are submitted to the tariff regulations of the relevant libraries.

However, the part about the creative commons license was removed (see current version of the TOU) after the Digitale Allmend association and the Swiss Creative Commons team pointed out that the BY-NC-SA CC license contradicts the obligation to get written permission to host the e-rara.ch documents on another server and that, anyway, CC licenses are copyright licenses and therefore cannot be applied to works that are in the public domain (see e-rara – Anfrage zur widersprüchlichen Nutzungslizenz bei Public Domain Werken – Digitale Allmend’s blog, March 25, 2010).

A small moral barrier

In the reply where the e-rara leadership  announced that they agreed to remove the CC license, they also wrote, concerning the restrictions of commercial exploitation in the terms of use:

Was uns Bibliothekaren zuweilen sauer aufstösst, ist die Tatsache, dass hier mit öffentlichen Geldern umfangreiche digitale Angebote aufgebaut werden, in denen sich kommerzielle Anbieter ungeniert bedienen können. Davor wollen unsere Nutzungsbedingungen eine kleine moralische Schranke errichten, mehr nicht.

e-rara – Antwort zu unserer Anfrage bezüglich Lizenzen für Werke – Digitale Allmend’s blog. March 29, 2010 (see also the discussion on e-rara’s license in the comments of the Facebook page about e-rara.ch created by Zentralbibliothek Zurich 1).

Informal translation:

What sometimes irritates us librarians is the fact that commercial vendors can freely/unashamedly draw from rich digital offers whose creation is financed by public monies. Our terms of use aim at creating a small moral barrier against that, nothing more.

This motivation is very honorable, but is creating a little moral barrier worth the resulting usability barrier for research and the complete exclusion of blind people?

Let us look at what can happen when a university library does not have this kind of moral qualms about commercial uses.

Italian Alice in true open access land

Original book

In 1872, MacMillan & Co in London and Loescher in Turin published “Le avventure di Alice nel Paese delle Meraviglie” with Tenniel’s illustrations. This first Italian edition of Lewis Carroll’s work was translated from the original by Teodorico Pietrocòla-Rossetti at the request of the author.

This is an important text because direct Italian translations of English works were rare back then (and for several decades afterwards); most  were done via French translation.

Moreover, Teodorico Pietracòla-Rossetti was a colorful character. A Protestant clergyman and patriot, he spent five years in exile in London, after having being condemned to death in the Kingdom of Naples for his revolutionary activities in 1848. During these years, he was probably introduced to Carroll by his uncle, the English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Above all, his  translation of Alice in Wonderland is masterly: Pietracòla-Rossetti managed in particular to render the poems wittily and in perfect metrical form.

Digital versions

Very few copies of this Italian translation survived. Fortunately, there was one in the library of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In 2008, the library made it available at archive.org/details/leavventuredalic00carr in a variety of digital formats, including a text version derived by optical character recognition (OCR) from the scan images.

OCRed text versions are not perfect, but they are preferable to scan pictures if you want to search within the work and/or if you are blind. For screen-reading software, scan pictures are completely dumb. Furthermore, an imperfect text version can be edited.

In fact, this is what Distributed Proofreaders collaboratively did with the OCRed text of  the Italian Alice at the Internet Archive. As  a result,a clean textual version of  Le avventure d’Alice nel paese delle meraviglie has been available since 2009 at the Gutenberg Project in a variety of formats, both hand-crafted and computer-generated.

From this clean version, freearchives.ch then derived a textual PDF, fully searchable and accessible to blind people using a screen-reader. The path to this PDF is slightly complicated, but as the file’s terms of use authorize it, I have uploaded it in this blog too: Lewis Carroll: Alice nel Paese delle Meraviglie – tr. by T. Pietracòla Rossetti.

In print again

In February 2010, Giuseppe Zanesi published a limited (333 copies) de luxe print edition of  Pietracòla-Rossetti’s translation with original illustrations by the contemporary artist Antonio Saliola. I do not know if  he used the Gutenberg Project version for the text, but I hope he did, rather than duplicating the work already done.

Of course, what really counts  is that  students and researchers now have a clean, fully searchable version of the book, and blind people can read it.

Plea to the e-rara.ch team

Your moral motives are very respectable, but please stop cutting off everybody’s noses in the flimsy hope of spiting possible commercial users’ faces. Your own nose, too. Apart from the money you could get by deciding to sell the high resolution scan images to commercial users, their exploitation, say by a university press, would be a great promotion for e-rara.ch.

Let us hypothesize two potential uses of the already mentioned Machumetis Saracenorum principis, eiusque successorum vitae, ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran…. (when you have scanned the third part, too – see aboveUpdate April 12, 2010 Update April 12, 2010: this third part has now been digitized [see the comment to this post for more info]).:

An academic publisher, on the one hand, might be interested in using this e-rara.ch version to produce a scholarly edition of this work, even to sponsor the digitization of its as-yet-undigitized third part. But e-rara.ch’s terms of use – at least in the French version – prevent such a commercial use.

On the other hand, nothing in these terms of use would prevent a coven of Muslim-haters from ganging together to transcribe2 and translate the most virulent anti-Islamic texts contained in the e-book, then post these texts on their non commercial web site3.

Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall

Considering that the “small moral barrier” against any commercial use and the other restrictions  in your present  Terms of Use:

  • prevent honorable uses by respected academic presses, who would certainly otherwise acknowledge the source, because that’s what academic presses have to do if they want to be respected, and probably be willing to pay for the use of materials from e-rara.ch
  • would not prevent non commercial, but perfectly distasteful, uses of materials from e-rara.ch
  • prevent the uploading of works digitized by e-rara.ch to the Internet Archive, where they would be automatically OCRed and derived in a variety of textual formats, easily searchable and accessible to blind people; and as a consequence
  • prevent the possibility that such an OCRed text be edited into an even better textual version by the volunteers of Distributed Proofreaders

maybe – as I already suggested in the deleted Facebook discussion reconstructed in note 1 – you might wish to consider the Project Gutenberg License at gutenberg.org/license?

Of course, some changes would be needed, for instance the references to US law should be adapted to the Swiss context. And the parts concerning in-copyright works should be deleted, as e-rara.ch does not have any.

Nevertheless, the Project Gutenberg team has been making public domain works accessible in clean digital form for decades, so its license reflects this experience and protects the dignity of the project and of the project team very efficiently. In particular, it distinguishes between reusing just the content of a work in the public domain published by the project, and claiming the name of the project in such a reuse.

In the former case, there are no restrictions. In the latter case, the license restrictions prevent the association of the project with ethically distasteful operations, and ensure that if the reuse has a commercial purpose, royalties are paid to the project.


The web pages linked to in this post, and a few more concerning e-rara.ch, are bookmarked under http://www.diigo.com/user/calmansi/e-rara.

1Actually,while I was writing this post, the discussion disappeared on March 31, 2010. Only its  last two comments  – by Zentral Bibliothek Zürich (ZBZ) – survived for a while in the Google cache version of ZBZ’s Facebook wall (see the  Diigo snapshot of this Google cache version), which then disappeared too.  Apparently the ZBZ team does not know either why the discussion on e-rara disappeared, as they did not answer the  Löschen von Facebook Beiträgen (archived snapshot) question about this disappearance  on their FB discussion board.  Therefore, in view of the interest of this discussion for the understanding of the evolution of e-rara’s terms of use, I reconstruct it here from the Facebook e-mail alerts I got each time a new message was posted (though not for mine):

“E-Rara: Alte Drucke aus Schweizer Bibliotheken im elektronischen Volltext zugänglich” [2010/3/27]
  • Daniel Boos
    “aber eigentlich sollten die Werke nicht mit einer CC Lizenz geschützt werden, sondern ganz gemeinfrei zur Verfügung gestellt werden.”
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich
    “Wir halten die Lizenzbedingungen für transparent und fair (http://www.e-rara.ch/doc/page/termsOfUse <http://www.e-rara.ch/doc/page/termsOfUse>).
    Was fehlt aus Ihrer Sicht? Freundlicher Gruss, Oliver Thiele”
  • Claude Almansi
    “It’s not that something is missing. The problem raised by Daniel Boos is that you cannot use a CC license for works in the public domain, as those digitized by e-rara, because CC licenses are copyright licenses and copyright does not apply to public domain works. And copyright does not apply to scans either. See “e-rara – Anfrage zur widersprüchlichen Nutzungslizenz bei Public Domain Werken” http://blog.allmend.ch/2010/03/25/601/.”
  • Daniel Boos
    “Also ich würde mich freuen, wenn die Werke als gemeinfrei deklariert würden und auch deren Speicherung und Weiterverwendung keine explizite Erlaubnis benötigen würde (Vgl. Hinweis in den PDF Dokument)en. Ich finde es schon richtig, dass man auf die ZB als Quelle verweist. Ist es aber wirklich notwendig, dass z.B. Wikipedia für jede Nutzung eine schriftliche Genehmigung einholen muss?”
  • Zentralbibliothek Zurich
    “Die e-rara-Koordination schreibt mir, dass sie die cc-Lizenz von der Website nehmen werden. Die generellen Nutzungsbestimmungen sollen aber bestehen bleiben. Dazu steht auch die ZB: Keine kommerzielle Nutzung ohne Zustimmung, Nennung der Institution, die das Werk über Jahrhunderte aufbewahrt, erschlossen und nun auch noch digitalisiert hat. Persönlich finde ich, die Wikimedia Commons u.dgl.  Frage müsste man separat und als Ganzes angehen.
    Freundlicher Gruss
    Oliver Thiele”
  • Daniel Boos
    “Eine Anfrage und Antwort vone-rara dazu gibt es auch unter: http://www.facebook.com/l/2ac29;krz.ch/YJP
    Vielen Dank für die prompten Antworten!”
  • Claude Almansi
    [From memory, as I don’t have the text of my comment anymore: I pointed out that the French version of e-rara.ch’s TOU said: “Toute exploitation commerciale est interdite” (Any commercial exploitation is forbidden) whereas this sentence was missing from the German version. I also suggested that the Gutenberg Project license might be a useful basis for a better version of e-rara.ch’s TOU.]
  • Zentralbibliothek Zurich
    “Je vais me renseigner en ce qui concerne la traduction. Pour Gutenberg etc, je suggère que vous contactiez la coordination du projet directement, Mme Franziska Geisser. C’est plus facile qu’avec moi en tant que “go between” ;-).”
  • Zentralbibliothek Zurich
    “La version française serait, selon Mme Geisser, une traduction imprécise de la version allemande et va être corrigée.”

This last comment from Zentralbibliothek Zurich means: “The French version would be, according to Ms. Geisser, an inaccurate translation of the German version, and it will be corrected”. It hasn’t been so far: see the archived snapshot dated 2001-04-01 in E-rara.ch Conditions d’utilisation (lang=fr) – The Diigo cached page, but Ms Geisser confirmed by e-mail (April 5, 2010) that they “are working on the terms of use and will have them revised eventually.”

2In fact, your “small moral barrier” will not prevent anyone sighted from retyping the content of the e-rara books. Thus, your barrier only blocks blind people who cannot do that.

3This kind of hijacking happens. For instance, Pierre Vidal Naquet’s essay against revisionism, Qui sont les assassins de la mémoire?, published by permission on anti-rev.org, is reused by the revisionist site aaargh.codoh.info.

One Response

  1. E-rara has digitized more books now. The present (April 7, 2010) figures indicated in e-rara.ch/collections/nav/classification/24 are:

    All collections (937)
    XVIth century (622)
    Other collections (315)
    * Astronomy (ETH-Bibliothek) (169)
    * Architecture and urbanism (ETH-Bibliothek) (150)


    April 8, 2010 update about the deleted Facebook discussion about e-rara’s TOU, reconstructed in note 1:
    Oliver Thiele, of Zentralbibliothek Zürich, has now answered the questions about this deletion in Löschen von Facebook Beiträgen. Summarizing his reply:
    The discussion about e-rara’s TOU was deleted because it also appeared on the Wall of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s Facebook page, where comments get eliminated after a while to keep it clean, and there was no intentional censorship. A better solution for the future would be to move discussions that start on special pages to the discussion section of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s Facebook page.


    April 12, 2010: The third part of Machumetis Saracenorum principis, eiusque successorum vitae, ac doctrina, ipseque Alcoran…” (mentioned in the Some e-rara.ch books and in the Plea to the e-rara.ch team sections) has now been digitized. However, in the version chosen for digitization, this third part contains a preface by Philipp Melanchthon, instead of the one by Martin Luther (from an e-mail, dated April 12, 2010, by Dr. Andreas Bigger, scientific collaborator and coordinator of the digitization, Basel University Library).

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