July 4, 2021 – In 1997, Time-Life magazine picked the movable type printing press as the most important invention of the second millennium. Like most important innovations and social changes, the printing press was an evolution that had deep roots in history.
Move forward in time to 1971, when Michael Hart invented the eBook. Like Gutenberg’s printing press, Hart’s innovation followed decades of prior work. To name a few, this includes Vannevar Bush’s “Memex” (1930s, based on microfiche), Bob Brown’s “The Readies” (1930s), Brown University’s “FRESS” (1960s), Ted Nelson’s Xanadu (1960s), and many others.
What Michael envisioned in 1971 was eBooks for reading enjoyment. This was the innovation. His focus was not on the mechanics of presentation or analysis, nor was it on outcomes like literary analysis or hermeneutics. The eBook as Michael envisioned it would have a similar purpose to the printed book: enjoyable to read, and a source of enlightenment, education, and entertainment. It would all be free, for unlimited reuse and without limitation of purpose.
For the two decades from 1971-1991, Hart evangelized the idea of eBooks, and worked on the first 100 or so titles. These included historical documents – famously starting with the US Declaration of Independence. Also reference works, literary works, a few donated contemporary works, mathematical constants, and more. Subsequent years saw issuance of short videos and longer movies, graphical collections, sheet music, audio files, and eBooks in dozens of languages and formats.
Like the movable type printing press, the modern digital computer was a machine usable for many different purposes: all types of content, suitable for a wide range of interests. This inspired the vision and genius of Michael Hart.
Project Gutenberg evolved from a concept to become an organization. Volunteers would identity printed books to digitize, and create an eBook for Project Gutenberg to publish and redistribute.
By the turn of the new millennium, Project Gutenberg was producing thousands of new eBooks per year. Distributed Proofreaders was launched, and became the biggest single source of new eBooks – harnessing the combined energies of volunteers.
Digital eBook readers became commonplace, and by the second decade of the millennium it was clear that eBooks had become widely adopted. Over the course of more than 30 years, the concept of literature being available for unlimited redistribution, freely available to all for any purpose, had gone from being seen as rather outlandish to becoming completely mainstream. This is the pathway of successful innovations, and in the case of Project Gutenberg the innovation has boundless social benefits.
Project Gutenberg has kept up with the times, offering e-reader friendly formats and features to help get free literature to as many people as possible – whether they are using a computer, a tablet, an e-reader, a mobile phone, or even if they are printing the eBooks on paper.
Everyone should have free, unlimited access to the world’s literature. Whenever they want, with a variety of formatting and delivery choices. “Literature,” said Hart, “should be as free as the air we breathe.”
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Michael Hart’s invention, Project Gutenberg remains vibrant and relevant. The efforts of thousands of volunteers have created a library of literature, reference and more, with over 60 languages and dialects.
Project Gutenberg celebrates 50 years of eBooks, and of continuously improving methods for creating and distributing them. The enduring gift of literary works to the people of the world is the outcome of the spirit of innovation and devotion to the common good.
Enjoy these eBooks. Share them. Celebrate.
Anyone can Help Make New eBooks!
Project Gutenberg was built by volunteers, and all new eBooks are the result of volunteer effort. The best way to help is to join Distributed Proofreaders. DP includes supportive forums for discussion, an online tutorial, and a variety of roles to suit different skills and interests. DP produces eBooks in many different languages.
Read More About Project Gutenberg
Michael Stern Hart (1947-2011) including an eulogy, timeline, and external links (2011).
- Project Gutenberg eBooks by Marie Lebert covering the history of Project
Project Gutenberg eBook: Forty-Five Years of Digitizing Ebooks: Project Gutenberg’s Practices by Greg Newby, describing how eBooks are selected and digitized (2019).
Project Gutenberg web page: Collection Development Policy, which describes what is currently being added to the collection, and why. It also includes some background on some types of items collected previously (2020).
- External resources:
- A Timeline for Project Gutenberg and Distributed Proofreaders by Marie Lebert (2021). This is Chapter 2 of “A short history of ebooks,” at the same link.
- 50 Years at Project Gutenberg, a blog post by Distributed Proofreaders (2021).
- Visualizations of the Project Gutenberg collection over time: subjects from 1971-2021 and Project Gutenberg eBooks issued over time by Joshua Preston (2021).
- Greg Newby @ Project Gutenberg: The Professor Who Gives Away Books, a podcast in which Dr. Newby describes his 30 years as a Project Gutenberg volunteer, and how Project Gutenberg has evolved over time.
- Saving Alexandria with Project Gutenberg’s Dr. Greg Newby, a podcast from The Poor Prole’s Almanac. The discussion addresses Project Gutenberg’s successes with volunteerism, emphasis on freedom of information, and challenges of lengthened copyright protection terms.
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