Tell us something about StoryWeaver. How did the idea germinate and how has it panned out?
It all started with Pratham Books that was launched in 2004. At Pratham Books, we believe that every child has the right to enjoy good books and that they should have access to stories set in surroundings and languages familiar to them. Hence, the mission ‘to put a book in every child’s hand.’
We soon found that there weren’t enough books for children nor were they easily accessible. As a not-for-profit publisher, we started publishing books for children in different local languages – Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, and others. This was an attempt to address the need for books in Indian languages for the children of the country. These are mainly story books that are well illustrated and affordably priced.
Over the years, Pratham Books have grown to publish across 20 Indian languages. We currently have over 375+ original titles and about 2500+ books across languages. The idea was to build a low cost scalable model so that children can readily access our books. Being a non-profit organisation, it was possible for us to do this. We soon saw print runs of 6000-8000 copies when best-selling books in India at that time had print runs of 2000 copies. By 2008, we moved to open source licensing mechanism to help spread the reach of our books.
In 2015, we started StoryWeaver which is an online platform that pushes the idea of promoting children’s reading further. When we built the platform, we had two choices. We could simply create a digital library or also build collaborative tools that would allow users to translate or version the content into languages of their choice. We felt that the latter could have greater scale and impact and so we chose that path. We launched the platform with 800 stories from Pratham Books.
All the content on the platform is Unicode compliant, which means that every word of every book is now searchable in every language and the text can be displayed on all devices. The interesting thing is that from 800 stories we have been able to scale to 6500 stories in two years. At Pratham Books, we published about 2500 books in 13 years. We’ve done more than double of that at StoryWeaver in just two years. We started with 24 languages which has jumped to 104. Some of our stories are available in over 45 languages, including Khmer language and a few African languages.
This clearly shows how our readership, though intended for India, has grown outside India as well. We, now, have around 400,000 users on the platform. Our coverage extends beyond the metros to tier-1 and tier-2 cities as well.
The platform enables a teacher/educator to read, download and print books. We enable downloads in three formats – low resolution pdfs, high resolution pdfs and epubs. Alternatively, someone can print the book and distribute it to children. StoryWeaver has enabled a number of organisations working with children to create a repository of stories in languages that are not represented in mainstream publishing. Suchana, an organization working in Birbhum, West Bengal, has translated over 60 stories to the tribal languages of Kora and Santali and printed 10,000 copies of these books which are distributed via mobile libraries and in after school resource centres.
We open our platform to both writers and translators so that more stories become available for children in languages which they are most comfortable with. The stories are interspersed with quality pictures by illustrators who are commissioned by Pratham Books. The interface is easy to work with making it possible for literally anyone to add their work. All the material on StoryWeaver is based on Creative Commons license that enables collaboration and reuse of our material. This enables us to build a culture of people who can create, read and use the stories.
We’ve had instances where people in Africa or Canada have dipped into our material and used the stories. Another instance of a similar impact story is when the Teach for India Fellows use our material in their classrooms. We’ve also had people from community associations help us out with translations. For instance, we’ve had great support in translating stories into Konkani through the support of the Konkani Bhasha Mandal. They’ve done fantastic work by translating more than 100 stories.
In recent years, our users told us of the need for non-fiction stories for children and we have created a range of STEM storybooks . In one story, How do Aeroplanes Fly, the protagonist is a young girl, Sarla, who is fascinated with planes and grows up to become a pilot. When we tested this story with children, we found that initially there was a sense that a girl couldn’t fly a plane. After the children were exposed to the story, we saw a clear attitudinal change that showed their belief changing that women can fly a plane. And that demonstrates the power that stories have to shape the worldview of children.
An interesting thing that is happening in rural areas is that either volunteers or teachers take a projector to classrooms and project the stories for the children to read. Sometimes, they hold storytelling sessions too. Teachers also download the books that are translated, say in Tamil, and print them out on half a A4 size page, thus making them quite like a storybook. They bind them and distribute these to the children to read. An extension of this is when an agency goes ahead and gamifies stories, and distributes them among the urban poor.
Another interesting thing that we are attempting with the stories is re-levelling. For instance, if the story is written for grade 3 children but someone feels that it can be useful for a grade 1 child, then the story can be customised for that level. Even re-levelled books retain the attribution to the original author.
What are some of the key initiatives led by Pratham Books?
We organize several workshops and events that help bring greater focus on children’s literature. Our missed call do, kahaani suno initiative enables children to listen to stories in English or Hindi via a missed call.
We are also working on an offline, limited capacity platform with exactly the same reading experience as the online version. The intent is to help propagate the stories in areas where there is poor connectivity. Another thing that we’ve noticed, particularly in underserved areas, is that children suffer because of underdeveloped vocabulary. We aim to work on this by adding audio stories to our platform. While listening to stories, children get exposed to a wider range of words and that helps them develop better. This will also expose them to correct diction, aiding its improvement.
In 2015, we launched another platform called Donate-a-book. We kept receiving requests from different quarters where people wanted us to donate books. Being a not-for-profit organisation, we naturally had to refuse. At the same time, there were people who wrote in wanting to donate small sums of money to Pratham Books. We decided to combine the two in this platform by making it a crowd-sourced platform for setting up libraries.
We also recently launched PhoneStories, an initiative that weaves together words, images and sounds to create a delightful reading experience for children. These have been designed to be mobile first and are available at no cost so that children across the country can access them easily.
How do you find authors or translators to write for your platform? What controls do you have in place?
We started with putting books by Pratham Books on the StoryWeaver platform. Then we approached people who have been associated with us as authors. We also connected with those who love their language and don’t find books in their language – they offered to translate books into their preferred language. There were also teachers who wanted to develop content for their students. They either wrote or translated stories to give the child a book in her/his hands.
When we launched the platform, we didn’t really anticipate the extent to which the platform would grow and hence we didn’t have any great controls in place. Even now we want to be as open as possible since it is a public platform. Clearly, with stories in so many languages, we really don’t have the required expertise in many of the languages that are on the platform. We are now building a network of volunteers who can act as reviewers for that language. They also help us in rating the stories. Our collaboration with language groups like Konkani Bhasha Mandal also ensures an optimum level of quality in the output.
How do you market and extend your reach to far corners of the country? Also, what are the key challenges you face?
As a not-for-profit organisation, we have not had great marketing budgets, but people who were looking for stories have found us. The fact that we can reach out to children across languages and geographical boundaries is really exciting. The response has been overwhelming not just in India but outside India too! It’s not that there are no challenges. How do we scale? How do we ensure the quality of user generated content? Where do we find the talent pool of authors and translators? How do we overcome problems of poor connectivity in many locations? We believe that as we grow and develop, a lot of these will naturally get addressed.
In conversation with Ms. Suzanne Singh, Chairperson, Pratham Books. (Original Post)