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CELEBRATING DIGITAL LIBRARIES

THE WORLD’S OLDEST digital library, Project Gutenberg, was founded in 1971. We’re not far from celebrating the half-century anniversary of this ambitious effort to make the world’s literature accessible online. Here are tidbits gleaned from the Project Gutenberg website, plus my usual Internet sleuthing. Indeed, as part of the latter, I came upon a scam reflecting a bit of irony.

Project Gutenberg logo, established December 1971.

Free Access to the World’s Great Literature. As described at its website, “Project Gutenberg is a library of over 60,00 free eBooks. Choose among free epub and Kindle eBooks, download them or read them online. You’ll find the world’s great literature here, with focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired.”

Crowd-Operated, Crowd-Funded. Project Gutenberg notes, “Thousands of volunteers digitized and diligently proofread the eBooks, for enjoyment and education.” As with open-source software, there’s a pathway for readers to report errors, bugs, typos, and other errata.

The Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization, completely crowd-funded.

At left, Michael S. Hart, Gutenberg founder; at right, Gregory Newby, a long-time volunteer and now CEO. Image from 2006 by “Marcello.” Hart died in 2011 at age 64. Newby has served as CEO of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation since 2000.

A Student’s Project. Michael S. Hart was a student at the University of Illinois when, in 1971, he was granted friendly access to the Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer at the university’s Materials Research Lab. Hart’s initial goal was to digitize the 10,000 most consulted books, make them available to the public at little or no charge, and do so by the end of the 20th century.

As his first document, Hart keyed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. As a proof of concept, he tested accessibility with a Project Gutenberg logo, still in use after 71 years.

An Historic Mainframe Computer. The Xerox Sigma V at University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign was one of the original 15 nodes of ARPANET, the precursor to today’s Internet.

The Xerox Sigma V on which Michael Hart typed in the text of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network was set up to link remote computers by establishing a protocol for exchanging packets of computerized data. Concepts such as log-in, file transfer, and email evolved in ARPANET research and implementation.

The ARPANET, 1977. Image from the Computer History Museum.

A Choice of Plain Text. Wikipedia notes, “The releases are available in plain text [a pure sequence of character codes, sans layout information] but, whenever possible, other formats are included, such as HTML [Hypertext Markup Language, common on web browsers today], PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and Plucker.” These enriched formats offer choices of fonts, images, and other enhancements, but at greater demands of computer memory.

Above, plain text example from Project Gutenberg’s Evelina, by Fanny Burney. Below, HTML example from the Project Gutenberg digital version of Richard Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, as discussed here at SimanaitisSays.


Free Digital Access Today. As of May 20, 2020, Project Gutenberg had posted 62,108 items in its collection of free eBooks.

Though the oldest, Project Gutenberg is not the only one. The largest of 501(c)(3) digital libraries is the Internet Archive, with 330 billion web pages, 20 million books and texts, 4.5 million audio recordings, 4 million videos, 3 million images, and 200,000 software program.

Logo of the Internet Archive, established in 1996.

In particular, the Internet Archive helped me researching Jack Sheppard, notorious English thief and escape artist of the Georgian era. Within its collection of Notable British Trials, the Internet Archive has digitized articles from the era about this rascal.

Project Gutenberg—the Movie. Project Gutenberg protects its website from commercial exploitation: “The Project Gutenberg website,” it notes, “is for human users only. Any real or perceived use of automated tools to access our site will result in a block of your IP address.”

However, this didn’t preclude its name being scammed in Project Gutenberg, 2018. This Hong Kong Chinese action flick has nothing to do with Project Gutenberg; its “Gutenberg” refers to printing, of counterfeit money.

According to Wikipedia, the flick “was a critical and commercial success, grossing a total of US$158.88 million worldwide, and winning seven awards at the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.”

There’s added irony here in scamming the Project Gutenberg name: According to IMDb, the flick is viewable “free,” but only to Amazon Prime members. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

One comment on “CELEBRATING DIGITAL LIBRARIES

  1. Mike B
    August 18, 2020

    Two other digital libraries come to mine, not car or opera related…though some seminal autonomous vehicle work is in ACM’s library and USGS maps are legendary.

    Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library: Available for $99 with association membership (another $100ish depending on age and add-ons). Massive collection of papers and periodicals related to computing.
    https://dl.acm.org/

    USGS: while in recent years most of their publication has been in paywalled journals, they do have a long history of professional papers, bulletins, and maps that can be viewed online.
    https://www.usgs.gov/core-science-systems/usgs-library/publications and https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/
    https://www.usgs.gov/products/maps/topo-maps

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