Celebrating Reading: Supporting the Foundations of Book Provision

08 September 2023

Celebrating Reading: Supporting the Foundations of Book Provision

By Alisha Niehaus…

Today, on International Literacy Day, we celebrate reading—learning to read and loving to read.

In our excitement about the possibilities that accompany literacy, it can be easy to overlook the underpinnings. We know achieving literacy takes trained and supported teachers, a quality curriculum, and, of course, quality reading materials. To make those quality reading materials, we know we need authors, illustrators, and printers, plus editors and designers. But an often-ignored part of ensuring continued access to critical literacy materials is design file production and archiving.

Design file… production and archiving?!?

Indeed! Responsible publishing is not only creating clear, engaging text and illustrations, but producing proper design files and ensuring those files are stored for future use.

First, before initial printing, a design file (usually made with Adobe InDesign) must be reviewed to be sure that it is print ready. Are the images all high resolution? If not, they will look pixelated when printed. Are all the fonts working properly? If not, they won’t print correctly—there could be wonky shapes instead of letters, or a default font might be substituted that is too large or too small. Are there ‘bleeds’ around the area to be printed? If not, when the printer cuts the pages, they might snip off important bits of text or image. There are few worse moments in the production process than when a book comes off press, and you open it expecting to see a beautiful picture of an elephant—but half the trunk has been chopped off! (Yes, I may have experienced such a thing.)

Second, once books have rolled off the presses, the complete design files should be archived and metadata stored, so they can be retrieved whenever someone wants to reprint the book—of course, any identified issues (like the trunkless elephant) should be fixed before archiving. Later, readers may find typos or other errors, and it is important to record these errors as well, so that next time the file is used they too can be corrected.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is! In contexts with established large publishers, there are often four or five people with specific skill sets who ensure that a file is properly produced in pre-press, quality-checked, and printed. Others add metadata and upload to an archive; yet another staff member tracks ‘errata’ for fixing in future printings.

In the development space, we are not working with large teams of experienced publishing staff. Often, staff are education experts, without any publishing background. This has meant that, despite the incredible efforts that have gone into making textbooks, storybooks, and decodable readers across underserved languages over the past two decades, some critical book production pieces have been absent.

In my decade-long tenure as publisher at Room to Read, I spent 70% of my time implementing and improving production guidelines. First, we searched for and reviewed the organization’s 600 book files from its first ten years—including venturing into dark closets across the world to retrieve CD-Roms, and amassing scans of physical books from the dark recesses of staff hard drives. Sometimes, a design file would be missing one high-res image on page 4, or a font used on the cover; these could be fixed with some care and ingenuity. Some files were missing so many parts that they needed to be entirely rebuilt. Some were lost forever. Meanwhile, I worked with my team to create new systems to track, maintain, and archive the over 6,000 additional original books, adaptations, and digital editions we continued to produce.

I do get a bit of a headache even thinking about all of this work—but it was more than worth it. Yet what gives me both headache and heartache is all the materials created across our space that cannot be rescued or rebuilt. All of those quality reading materials made by well-meaning projects that were printed and then the project closed without taking the steps to ensure that those books could serve children beyond that initial printing.

This issue isn’t limited to any one organization. It’s a problem across the board. We have lost so, SO, SO many books. Books that children need—the children in early grades during that original, funded project—and all the children who have come, and will come after need as well. 

We MUST do better. Because, unlike so many of the issues in our sector, this one can be solved.

And, in celebration of International Literacy Day 2023, I am happy—nay, thrilled!—to report that we are coming together to do just that.

The Early Learning Resource Network is a new effort by World Bank’s Read@Home program, in partnership with the Global Book Alliance and USAID, which offers just what’s been missing: a sector-wide platform on which to securely store print-ready files for downloading and reprinting; to find design files for adapting into other languages and contexts; and a plethora of resources to support book sharing work.

The platform offers courses on ensuring files are print-ready at the design stage, on using Creative Commons licenses so that the files can be freely leveraged by new projects, and on how to use the books with children and families. There is a print-cost calculator to help users understand how much a print-run of certain books might cost. And more resources are coming: courses on how to best manage book production, as well as curated instructional sets of textbooks, teacher’s guides, and leveled readers that can be easily printed to support a full literacy program.

And my favorite part: instructions on how to vet, upload, and archive books from new projects so that none of these crucial resources are ever lost again. On a day to applaud the many achievements of passionate, dedicated people in service of world literacy, this a true milestone to celebrate.

Happy International Literacy Day from the Early Learning Resource Network! Come visit, soon and often.


Alisha Niehaus Berger is a children’s book expert, author, and publisher. She served as Global Publisher at the literacy and girls' education nonprofit Room to Read (https://roomtoread.org) for a decade, where she directed their worldwide program in quality reading materials, guiding the publication of over 6000 print and digital storybooks in more than 50 languages and across 21 countries, as well as support to local publishers and publishing ecosystems. Prior to this, she worked at Simon & Schuster, Dorling Kindersley, and Penguin in New York, where she edited bestsellers and books that won some of the most prestigious children’s book prizes. She now lives in Switzerland with her family where she writes, hikes, and aspires to ensure that every child has access to great books in their languages. Reach her at alisha.n.berger(@)gmail.com

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Image source: Global Partnership for Education/Livia Barton (CC BY-NC-ND)