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The Past, Present, and Future of Project Gutenberg
2006, Q1 (March 05, 2007)
by Ronald W. Garrison, Carolina Chapter Member

 Ronald W. Garrison
Ronald W. Garrison

In 1971, Michael Hart used some free computer time he had been given to put a copy of the US Declaration of Independence on a network of a few computers—a network that later grew into what we know as the Internet. Care had to be taken not to clog the systems involved with a massive deluge of text, and it remained to be seen what kind of reception such a contribution would receive.

Since then, the volunteer effort known as Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org) has always been part of the culture of the Internet, yet until very recently its contributions were surprisingly modest. In 1993, there were still fewer than 100 e-books attributed to Project Gutenberg. But the pace was accelerating. In 2000, Charles Franks started Distributed Proofreaders as a source of high-quality digitized text for Project Gutenberg, creating an environment that made it easy for volunteers to contribute to the effort casually, using whatever amounts of time they could spare.

But within the last few years, and especially in the last few months, the digitization of the world’s entire collection of printed books has entered a radically new phase. As Project Gutenberg’s volunteers celebrated milestones of 10,000 books and, very recently, 15,000 books, other projects, by bigger groups with deeper pockets, were announced. Google granted access to several thousand digital books last November (triggering a lawsuit). Microsoft partnered with the British Library to digitize 25 million pages (about 100,000 volumes) of out-of-copyright books within the next year. Amazon, starting with its Amazon Upgrade program, had already been working in the area previously. Carnegie Mellon, jointly with other organizations, mostly in India and China, started the Million Book Project, with the goal, already mostly met, of digitizing a million volumes by the start of 2007. Over two dozen Canadian academic research libraries initiated Alouette Canada, a project which will put as many as four million books online in a similarly short period of time. And as if those announcements were not amazing enough, there are many other smaller and more specialized efforts serving more limited purposes.

All of these developments make it natural to ask what the future role of Project Gutenberg may be in this new landscape suddenly populated by giants. With a growth rate now easily fitting the famed Moore’s Law, Michael Hart and his volunteers have good reason, from one perspective, to be pleased with their accomplishments. Yet it’s just as natural to wonder if the project itself has finally outlived its usefulness.

Michael Hart does not see it that way. In a long and wide-ranging interview in 2002 with Sam Vaknin of United Press International, he expressed serious concerns about preserving free access to information, and about trends toward more restrictive copyright legislation, and emphasized the unrestricted access enjoyed by anyone using any of the results of Project Gutenberg.

Whether or not you agree that a niche will remain for Project Gutenberg, now that so many larger efforts are under way, perhaps the wider issue in the future will be: What about media other than books? For media that have always been machine-readable, such as movies and sound recordings, the ravages of time are a much more serious concern, as are the legal issues of distribution. I expect to take on these matters in a future commentary.

If you’re interested in Project Gutenberg, and can’t wait for Ron’s next article, start some reading on your own with these links:

Ron can be contacted at rgarrison1 at nc dot rr dot com. End of article.

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