Untapped: The Australian Literary Heritage Project

Rescuing lost books

Most Australian books ever written are now out-of-print and inaccessible to readers. That includes local histories and memoirs, beloved children’s titles – and even winners of our most glittering literary prizes, such as the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Untapped is a collaboration between authors, libraries and researchers, working together to identify Australia’s lost literary treasures and bring them back to life. It creates a new income source for Australian authors, who currently have few options for getting their out-of-print titles available in libraries.

What’s involved?

1. Identify missing books

There are so many missing treasures out there that it has been hard to pick the most important ones to invest in!

Award-winning or critically acclaimed novels? Bestsellers? Debuts by well-known authors? The seminal book on a particular topic? A work that reveals something special about a particular place or time or group of people? An historical record that can be used by families and scholars alike? A favourite children’s book or series? Each has its own claim to cultural importance. Working with library collections experts, the Australian Society of Authors, literary agents and individuals, we sought to create an inclusive and diverse selection of lost books in need of rescue. (You can explore our full collection here.)

2. Find the authors and obtain the rights

We have worked with Australian authors, literary agents and estates to obtain the rights and digitise 161 culturally important out-of-print novels, histories, memoirs, poetry and more. They are available to borrow as ebooks from public libraries around the country, with our library partners promoting them so everyone has an opportunity to rediscover these texts. And they’re available for sale as ebooks too!

3. Now it’s time to digitise!

We used sophisticated scanning methods to copy the print book, then applied OCR to convert the text. After that, we used dedicated proof readers to pick up any errors and make sure the scan is of library quality. For that proofreading work, our focus was on hiring arts workers affected by COVID.

Once all that was done, there was still the cover design, handling the metadata, writing the blurbs, sorting out royalty accounting, and uploading the whole kit and caboodle to library e-lending and e-tail platforms – all the usual services publishers handle.

4. Libraries promote the collection

Libraries around Australia have licensed these lost treasures for digital lending, let readers know about them via all kinds of exciting promotional initiatives, and, of course, paid fees to authors for the use of their books.

In addition to the books we digitised ourselves, the collection includes out-of-print ebooks that had previously been digitised by our publishing partner, Ligature. As well as making them available in libraries for the first time, this also helps us with the design of our research experiments.

5. We collect the data and crunch the numbers

The research team will analyse the sales and loans of these books to understand the value of out-of-print rights to authors, the value of libraries’ book promotion efforts, and the relationship between library lending and sales.

We’ll feed the results into public policy discussions about how we can best support Australian authors and literary culture. And we’re hopeful that this new investment and attention will get some of these important books another look from commercial publishers too..!

6. The books live on…

Even after the research is complete, the project will continue. Once we’ve created the infrastructure to enable out-of-print titles to be licensed into Australian libraries, Untapped will exist ongoing – and will keep rescuing lost literary treasures for as long as we have the resources to do so.

We’ll also be lodging copies of all our books with the National Library as part of its e-deposit scheme, which means they’ll be preserved and accessible for as long as libraries exist.

Watch the video of our Gala launch

Untapped officially launched in November 2020 with a special online gala, hosted by the Hon Julie Dodds-Streeton QC and Associate Professor Rebecca Giblin live from Longacres, Sir Arthur Streeton’s historic retreat. It featured readings and appearances from Australian authors Anita Heiss, Garry Disher, Carmel Bird, Gillian Rubinstein, Sophie Masson and Danielle Clode, as well as international bestseller Cory Doctorow, readings from some of Streeton’s letters (which will be made available again as part of the project) and a reading of Dorothy Porter’s marvellous The Lazy Poem.

You can watch the recording of the Gala here.