As a research scholar, I have to spend a lot of time in libraries. Until I tried to use university libraries in Delhi (to study Indian history, no less), I had no idea how easy I had it back at Columbia. My success rate for finding useful books here is pretty grim, but last week I discovered Delhi University's digital books projects—and it's nothing short of amazing.
The ambitions of librarians in India, many of whom have had excellent training, are hemmed in by outdated regulations, a lack of funding for the humanities, and of course the prejudices and lack of expertise of their own colleagues. One example of the bureaucratic mindset is that at both Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), students are not allowed to take personal books into the library. It makes about as much sense as excluding students wearing blue shirts from the library on Tuesdays.
The major libraries are pursuing various modernization projects, but these have come years too late to be useful for me. Universities have made it a priority to get bibliographic data into digital form, because at the moment the catalogues don't reflect what is actually in the collections. With digital bibliographical data, the online catalogues can be made more useful, and eventually it will be possible to make a union catalogue, meaning that you could search all the Indian university collections from one catalogue. But records are all still spotty, with card catalogues more common (and complete) than computerized ones.
Consider that I'm just talking about scholarly books in English. It's even worse for other kinds of materials. To get to the Persian section in DU's arts library, you walk past a metal staircase piled high with thousands of disintegrating Sanskrit and Hindi books. The mouldering wave of paper breaks onto the ground floor in geological slow motion. The Persian section itself apparently doesn't have a functioning catalogue, nor have any new Persian books been bought in decades. You locate a text by reading the spines, hoping that the decrepit book you want is actually in the subject section where it is supposed to be. Most of the books are filthy, but a few shelves have sunken into a special kind of squalor. They have been neglected for so long that the books are uniformly black with grime, as though charred. Once I stepped closer to see if I could make out any titles and a friend of mine yelled, "Don't touch those!" He joked that I would need to take a bath if I tried to read them. (By comparison, the Latin section—let's say that Latin in the US is roughly equivalent to Persian in India—at a university library in America might be a little dustier than the rest of the library, but the books are digitally catalogued, well-marked and useable.)
If the cataloging efforts are a glimmer of hope, then Delhi University's digital books project is a bright sunny day. Without leaving home, I've had access to thousands of pages from books that I would never be able to conveniently use if I trekked up to the university to find them.
The library has adopted the open-source software DSpace to create DSpace@DelhiUniversity, which has some 14,000 books available for download as PDFs. The project is sponsored by the national Department of Information Technology and the library is using a grant of Rs 6,300,000 (=$140,000), as described here. It was meant to have been wrapped up by now, but it seems to be ongoing—$140,000 goes a long way in India.
Another advantage of DSpace@Delhi University is that Indian copyright law is laxer than US law. Basically any work published in India before 1950 is public domain, while in the US most works after 1923 are public domain. (I offer a fuller account of the differences in the bonus section below.) Because book scanning projects don't have the time or the legal expertise to make judgments about copyright, they use the public domain cut-off date. That means that Indian digital libraries can distribute books printed up to 1950 while an American service like Google Books will generally not show a full view for any book printed after 1923.
Digital libraries are a technological development that is perfectly suited for India. More people here are computer-saavy than able or willing to use a library. The dead-tree model of gathering knowledge constantly presents questions of access and bureaucratic annoyance (for example, it's not even clear if my affiliation to DU allows me to use DU's library without paying some fee). With digital books, anyone can easily find and obtain a relevant book.
BONUS: Copyright law in India and the US
Indian copyright law is laxer than American copyright law. India's Copyright Act of 1957 makes the span of copyright sixty years. In most cases, the clock starts when the author dies, but for institutional or anonymous works then it's from the year after first publication. By comparison, in the United States, it takes seventy years after the death of an author for a work to become public domain and a work for hire (that is to say, a work created on behalf of a corporation) is copyrighted for either 95 or 120 years. Suspiciously, this term seems to get extended whenever Mickey Mouse, one of the most lucrative copyrights in history, is about to slip into the public domain. Furthermore, the date before which works are automatically public domain has been frozen in the US at 1923.
There are other differences, such the "fair use" exemption, which is quite narrow in the US law but in Indian law actually allows someone to make three copies of a work.
[Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information I've provided here is gleaned from the web and shouldn't be considered authoritative.]