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Profiles in eBookery: Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is one of the most aptly titled programs ever. Gutenberg, famously, invented the printing press, and in effect delivered affordable literature to the masses. Project Gutenberg (which began in 1971) not only invented the ebook, but aims to deliver literature back to the masses. Of course literature is easy to find in a bookstore, but believe it or not, you already own thousands of books, even if they aren’t currently in your possession.

After a certain amount of time (usually 50-70 years in the US) beyond the author’s death, copyrights expire and the work falls into the public domain. Meaning we all own it. (I should note here that I am not a copyright lawyer, I’d be much richer and yet more depressed if I were.) So when you pay $25 for a nice hardcover of Wuthering Heights at Borders, you’re paying for the paper, binding, typesetting, and accompanying essays. This is also why there is a $5 paperback of Wuthering Heights on the same shelf.

Project Gutenbergs aim is to digitize all the out-of-copyright texts in the world and make them available for free to anyone who wants them. This is done entirely by volunteers, which an impressive degree of efficiency. It began humbly:

On July 4, 1971, on Independence Day, Michael keyed in The United States Declaration of Independence (signed on July 4, 1776) to the mainframe he was using. In upper case, because there was no lower case yet. But to send a 5 K file to the 100 users of the embryonic internet would have crashed the network. So Michael mentioned where the eText was stored (though without a hypertext link, because the web was still 20 years ahead). It was downloaded by six users. Project Gutenberg was born.

And look how things have grown (these two quotes pulled from their history document by Marie Lebert, which you can read in entirety here):

37 years after its birth, Project Gutenberg is running at full capacity. It had 5,000 books online in April 2002, 10,000 books in October 2003, 15,000 books in January 2005, 20,000 books in December 2006 and 25,000 books in April 2008, with 340 new books available per month, 40 mirror sites in a number of countries, books downloaded by the tens of thousands every day, and tens of thousands of volunteers in various teams.

What this does for digital texts is infinitely important. The vast majority of (if not all) digitized classic texts online originate from Project Gutenberg’s team of reader volunteers. Sites such as ManyBooks.net have improved about PG’s foundation, allowing any user to download these books in a vast array of formats, thus aiding readers in customizing their personal digital libraries to their liking. The classic book toss-ins offered by companies like Sony and Amazon also have PG to thank, and–whether you consider it a blessing or a cluttered curse–iPhone apps and stand alone mobile versions of classic books also originate from PG’s deep, public-owned library (which is why you should only pay for them if they actually put in some TLC).

It’s not all roses though. With such a vast database of text, some can be messier than others.  Personally I find the opening text blocks you’ve got to trudge through before the opening paragraphs to be cumbersome eyesores, and the formatting can be wonky (the Shakespeare compilation is particularly rough around the edges). ManyBooks and others have helped with this in many respects, but the offerings are still far less polished than the professional, salable texts offered by many online bookstores. A professionally curated digital library built on PG’s foundation would be amazing indeed, but the lack of money involved in such an endeavor make it unlikely without heavy subsidy (from say the Library of Congress) which is equally unlikely. It also sets up the unfortunate clutter situation seen in places like on the iPhone where many shoddily put together single title appbooks waste space in an already disorganized store. Charging a dollar or more for these is dishonest at best, and unfortunately many users just don’t know better.

Despite this, Project Gutenberg represents something essential to remember as books migrate to the digital world: books (the words and ideas) are first and foremost an art form, and a business later. Now that these books are in the public domain, they essentially belong to the public.  I’m all for buying a nice special edition with some great accompanying essays (indeed I do, often, and recommend others do the same), just don’t get hoodwinked. PG is the first and deepest electronic library, and an invaluable service to readers around the world.

How can you help? Well, you could volunteer. You can type  up a book if you’re feeling really ambitious or you can proofread as much or as little as you can handle. Most importantly, download these books, read them, share them them, review them, talk about them, love them. After all, they belong to you already.

In the next installation: Creative Commons (rethinking copyright and fair use).

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