When Amy Brand took the helm at the MIT Press two years ago, she was prepared to budget hundreds of thousands of dollars to begin the difficult process of digitizing thousands of backlist titles. As she planned the digitization program, she put in a call to Brewster Kahle, a former member of the press management board, who she hoped might rejoin the press family.

Kahle, a librarian and computer engineer credited with helping develop the foundations of the internet, wasn’t sure he was interested, but he did have digitization on his mind. Specifically, Kahle wanted her permission to digitize an obscure 1965 MIT Press book entitled Libraries of the Future, authored by computing pioneer J.C.R. Licklider. Kahle recalls asking Brand, “If I digitize this without your explicit permission, would you get mad?” Then he asked Brand if there was another way he could contribute to the press without rejoining the board.

Two years later, the result of their conversation is a partnership to digitize many important books from the press’s backlist and make them available to libraries for free. Announced in June, the project is paid for by the Arcadia Fund, a private philanthropic organization dedicated to cultural preservation and open access that has enabled the press to digitize hundreds of older titles, of which 123 are already available. The work of scanning and preparing digital editions is being done by the Internet Archive, an online repository containing 11 million books, founded by Kahle in 1996 with the goal of making as much of the world’s written, visual, and audio content available for free as possible.

Through the project, participating libraries that hold MIT Press print books will have the opportunity to lend e-books of select backlist titles to patrons. These titles will also be made available for lending via the Internet Archive.

Creating a digital backlist that is accessible for free may sound simple, but Brand and Kahle are quick to point out that the challenges go far beyond scanning pages out of books. The two organizations first had to come up with a contract that satisfied the open-access mission of Kahle’s organization and the sustainable publishing needs of the MIT Press.

“It was complicated,” acknowledged Brand. “It took many months to arrive at a point where I felt like I was entering into an agreement to digitize some of our backlist content and maintain the control for the press that I was comfortable with.”

Once a contract was agreed upon, acquisitions editors mined the backlist for older titles they thought readers would find useful or compelling, but for which they did not see ongoing sales potential. Discoveries were made along the way, including a long-forgotten collection of papers by mathematician and WWII code-cracker Alan Turing, and works by the originator of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. Editors quickly realized that some titles were so important that they should be set aside and brought back into print as well.

Copyright laws added another layer of difficulty for the press. Authors and their descendants were sought out to give permission for every single title, even though it was not legally necessary in most cases, and books without images were given priority because they needed fewer permissions. Brand said she believes the language of the existing contracts used by the press allows it to digitize the books without seeking renewed permissions, “but out of courtesy to authors and their estates, we’re reaching out for every single book.”

Not every author has been excited about the project. Brand said a small number of authors refused to give permission, but she added that asking them is part and parcel of the mission of the press to devise novel ways to protect the works it publishes and the authors who write them. “Let’s be realistic,” she said, “Almost everything we publish is going to be pirated and has been pirated in some way. It has to be part of our business planning and business models to make some of this older content open for distribution by creating authorized and semi-authorized open works.”

But curtailing piracy was not the only benefit from the IA partnership. The digitization for which Brand was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for is being done free of charge.

At the Internet Archive’s scanning center at the Boston Public Library, shipments of books from the press are being scanned daily. Under the agreement, the Internet Archive then returns digital files to MIT with all of the metadata for each title included for free.

Brand said that some publishers might be wary of taking a similar approach to their backlists, but she said it’s ultimately a sound, “proactive thing for a publisher to do that doesn’t compromise its backlist.” For MIT Press, she added, the whole endeavor meets the press’s mission of enhancing access to scholarly material, particularly books that weren’t boosting the bottom line.

For Kahle, “the digitize-and-lend idea is a modest step toward digital access,” but he said he will accept its limits if the model will persuade commercial presses to digitize 20th-century content that is still protected by copyright.

As he continues to work with Brand to digitize and upload MIT’s backlist, Kahle says, “the next step is to see if this works for others.” In the near term, he hopes to partner with the Arcadia Fund to persuade other academic publishers to follow MIT’s lead. In the long term, he has his sights set on convincing a trade publisher to take the leap.

“I think we should not underestimate the value of the materials from the 20th century,” said Kahle. “There’s demand. People want access.”