Project Gutenberg Digital Library Seeks To Spur Literacy

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Thirty-six years ago, a student at the University of Illinois keyed the U.S. Declaration of Independence into a mainframe computer and offered it to others on the network that would become the Internet. Six users downloaded the file, inaugurating what its founder, Michael Hart, decided to call Project Gutenberg in honor of Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th-century German printer who started the movable type printing press revolution.

Using free computer time at his university, Hart keyed in the first 100 books himself and since has devoted his life to the project. Today, he often is described as someone who was a visionary ahead of his time; he has described himself as an “incurable romantic,” a “natural-born workaholic and idealist.” Hart grasped from the outset that his idea for a digital library could change the world, spurring literacy. Project Gutenberg became the first information provider on the Internet and is the oldest digital library with the largest single collection of free electronic books, or e-books.

Project Gutenberg gives away 3 million e-books a week from just one single site, at the University of North Carolina, according to Hart. Most are books whose copyrights have expired in the United States, but there are also audio books, recorded music, sheet music, moving pictures and still pictures. The original video clip of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, just four hours before American astronaut Neil A. Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon, is part of the collection, for example.

“The idea of Project Gutenberg is to bring the source of all information, and civilization, to the masses in the same way the Gutenberg press did in the middle of the second millennium, only in a modern manner,” Hart said.

The collection includes books in many languages other than English. For example, there are 1,053 books in French, 451 in German, 396 in Finnish, 279 in Dutch, 155 in Spanish, 114 in Italian, 113 in Portuguese, 54 in Tagalog, and even books in Frisian, Catalan, Nahuatl, Sanskrit and Iroquoian.

Hart has said he expects eventually to offer 1 million books in 100 languages as well as everything else in the public domain including graphics, music, movies, sculpture, paintings and photographs.

Hart’s goal is simple: “We want to provide as many e-books in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible.” He added that e-books advance the dissemination of culture, literacy, democracy and civil society.

Project Gutenberg does not claim new copyright on titles it publishes. Hart instead has encouraged the free reproduction and distribution of the collection by such projects as the eGranary, which places Web resources on a server on university campuses in developing countries that have little or no Internet connectivity. (See related article.)

Hart does not ask for user fees or solicit large grants, insisting his collection’s e-books be free, keeping the project a virtual, rather than physical, entity and relying on volunteers. So far, more than 50,000 people have helped " “there are no dues, no membership requirements and still only the most general guidelines to making eBooks for Project Gutenberg,” he said.

Hart’s project has inspired such other digital libraries as Projekt Gutenberg-DE for classic German literature and Projekt Runeberg for classic Nordic literature.

One of Hart’s key principles is “noninterference” with volunteers. “Project Gutenberg's staff and the organization as a whole can do the most good by setting up a set of tools and infrastructure to create and distribute e-books, and then let creative and energetic volunteers do work as they see fit,” he said.

A free DVD, whose contents also are available for downloading, contains 17,000 of the collection’s first 19,000 titles.

Hart said he believes e-books are also an environmentally friendly alternative to printing traditional books. And, most of the world cannot afford the traditional book, he added. “When it comes to owning entire libraries, it's easier if they are e-books.”

There are more than 20,000 free books listed in the Project Gutenberg Online Book Catalog. No special e-book readers, software or other devices are necessary. More than 100,000 titles are available at Project Gutenberg Partners, Affiliates and Resources. The Science Fiction Bookshelf is offering a new compact disk for downloading that includes most of the collection’s science fiction titles.

Users also can create a CD or DVD image containing only the books they want, whether 20 or 2,000. For further information on how to download compilations of e-books, see Gutenberg: The CD and DVD Project.

Project Gutenberg is participating in the second annual World eBook Fair, which has more than 750,000 e-books, including historical documents, national literatures, children’s literature, medicine and reference, available for free downloading through August 4.