World Public Library, an impressive collection of free books and documents but a cumbersome registration process

WPL logo

We can see at this point in our Free Content ‘tour’ that ‘free’ ebook (or econtent) collections online are based on various premises (e.g., a true nonprofit or a quasi-nonprofit) and take different approaches to issues such as the need to register with the site, as well the ability to download items from the site. As I’ve learned more about DRM and ebook platforms over the past few years, I’ve also learned that the variations in how these collections operate are considerable and speak to models of access.

With that in mind, this week’s focus is on the World Public Library—a service that, contrary to the others considered so far in NSR’s Free Content Alerts (see Project Gutenberg, Bookzz, and Internet Archive posts), requires disclosing personal information to obtain an “e-Libray card”.

The purpose, history, and activities of  the World Public Library (WPL) are given on its site, specifically here.   Briefly, though, the WPL began in 1996 with the purpose of preserving various writings (not just literature). It currently contains some 4.2 million  volumes arranged by various categories. The site describes itself this way:  “The eBook Library Collections shelves millions of PDF eBooks in hundreds of languages, containing hundreds of the finest eBook and eDocument collections published on the Internet today.

All of the eBooks are in PDF file format, and all Audio eBooks are in MP3 file format. These formats have been especially designed to be cross- platform compatible with all PCs, Laptops, PDAs, Kindle DXs, Kindle 3s, iPads/iPods, eReaders, or Smartphones” (as explained here). The collection is subdivided into nine groupings.  In addition to customary ebook collections, the nine include comics, photographs, school books, and the ability to self-publish.

As mentioned above, an “eLibrary Card” is needed for access. The registration asks for name and address. In addition, users pay $8.95/yr. to help defray the expenses incurred by the World Library Foundation. Though the fee is nominal, it still is at odds with projects such as “Croatia Reads” and similar efforts to provide truly free access to material.

In addition, the registration includes agreeing to a rather lengthy Terms and Conditions of Use. Within that list are these provisions:

  • These eBooks, texts and images may not be re-published in print or electronic form without permission from the World Public Library. However, educators are welcome to print out items and hand them out to their students.
  • Users are not permitted to download our eBooks, texts, and images in order to mount them on their own servers for public use or for use by a set of subscribers. Individuals and institutions can, of course, make a hyperlink to the files at World Public Library.
  • It is not in our interest, or that of our users, to have uncontrolled subsets of our holdings available or stored elsewhere. We make corrections, add tags, add images, etc. on a continual basis, and we want the most current text to be the only one generally available to all users.

This language obviously precludes sharing, so that even works without copyright restrictions cannot be downloaded.  You can readily see the implications of considering material ‘freely’ accessible, yet having such iron-clad language concerning its distribution. And, more generally, there’s the conundrum of how the various ebook aggregators might ever be on the same (web) page in their approach to these issues.

Nonetheless , the site does have its merits, especially as to its ease of use and breadth of material. But I can’t get away from my unease at having to register; it just seems antithetical to what we who endorse the efforts of NSR hope to see.


Ari Sigal received his MLS in 1985 and has done reference and administrative work in public, academic and special libraries. Since 2004, he has worked for Catawba Valley Community College (Hickory), NC, first as Library Director (to 2009) and currently as the Reference and Instruction Librarian. He is also Curator of the Gilde-Marx Collection for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, one of the largest of its kind in North Carolina and offers an annual program on topics related to its material. He is the editor of Advancing Library Instruction (IGI-Global, 2013) and also serves on the editorial advisory board for the  Encyclopedia of Information Science and  Technology, also from IGI.

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