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Discovering digitized e-Books via Project Gutenberg

December 7, 2009

by Mark Ollig

Project Gutenberg is a site on the Internet available for anyone to view and download electronic books (e-Books) for free.

These books can be read on your personal computer or most portable devices, such as an iPhone or Kindle.

The project’s goal is to provide and make available to the general public, books and other literary works belonging to the public domain, freely accessible via electronic text format which can be easily read using the current technology of the day.

Project Gutenberg was founded July 4, 1971 by Michael Hart, and today it remains the first and largest collection of free electronic books available on the Internet.

Michael Stern Hart was born in 1947 in Tacoma, WA.

According to Project Gutenberg’s web site, in 1971, while Hart was a student at the University of Illinois, he was given a very large dollar equivalent worth of “operator’s account” computer time on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer located at the University of Illinois.

The computer time was given with the hope of helping improve one’s job performance.

Hart realized there was little he could do in the way of “normal computing” that would pay back the enormous value of the computer time he had been given, so he decided on a different methodology.

Hart stated the greatest value created by computers would not be in computing alone, but in the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was collected inside our libraries.

With that thought in mind, the first words of electronic text Hart began to type onto the teletype machine connected to the mainframe computer was the Declaration of Independence, taken from the paper copy he had been given at a grocery store after he attended the 1971 4th of July fireworks display.

He then sent this electronic text or e-Text copy to everyone on the same computer network.

Hart realized this first electronic document would become a centerpiece in the computer libraries of the future.

And so, Project Gutenberg was born.

The basis on which Hart established Project Gutenberg was this: “anything that can be entered into a computer can be reproduced indefinitely.”

An interesting term Hart used was “Replicator Technology.”

Hart describes this term in 1971 to imply how unlimited copies of books’ content can be stored inside a computer and be made available to anyone on this world – or even outside this world – using satellite transmission.

In 1973, Hart typed in the full text of The United States Constitution.

In August 1989, Project Gutenberg completed its 10th book, The King James Bible, first published in 1611.

In 1990, there were only 250,000 Internet users, and the standard storage medium used was 360K floppy disks.

In January 1991, Hart typed in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and in July of that same year he typed in “Peter Pan.” Both works of literature each fitted onto one disk.

Until 1991, Hart had been typing in these first e-Books mostly by himself.

Even though Hart himself was still typing in the contents from paper books, he was able to coordinate the work with at first dozens, and then later, hundreds of volunteers.

Around 1995, as the Internet grew in popularity, the Gutenberg Project received more national attention.

Project Gutenberg takes care in making sure the electronic file content is easily read in a simple or plain text format using what is called “Plain Vanilla ASCII.”

ASCII stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, and is the type of encoding or means of converting text which has been commonly used in the computer industry.

At least one version of each e-Book is a plain text file which can be viewed on practically any computer.

The reason for this is the majority of the hardware and software out there is likely to be able to read these types of ASCII files.

On the left side of the main web page for Project Gutenberg, under “In the Title Word(s),” I performed a search using the term “Minnesota.”

The results showed one of the ten related e-Books available was called “The History of Minnesota and Tales of the Frontier” by Charles E. Flandrau. This book was originally published in 1900.

The complete text of this now digitized Minnesota e-Book contains almost 119,000 words and the complete text can be read at: tinyurl.com/ygdphpr.

Today, Project Gutenberg boasts more than 30,000 literary e-Book titles available to the public.

The copyrights for most of the books which have been retyped into the Project Gutenberg database have expired in the US. (Some may still be copyrighted in other countries, however).

Project Gutenberg publishes only books which are in the public domain – unless they have the permission of the copyright holder.

Project Gutenberg operates only in the US, and only sends their files to servers in the US.

Other countries’ “Gutenberg-like” projects are independently operated, according to Michael Hart’s web site.

Project Gutenberg’s web site is located at www.gutenberg.org.

The personal web site for Michael Hart is http://pglaf.org/hart/.

The Sigma V computer Michael Hart used in 1971 was donated to the Computer History Museum in 2002.