Do you remember when you first discovered the internet? For me, it wasn’t until around 1995, the first time I bought a computer with a modem. At that time, we had Freenet, which was text based. Green text on a black screen. Yet it was amazing. Libraries of information, and all of it for free. There was a primitive search engine called Yahoo. And there was Project Gutenberg. One could access thousands of books online–for free!
At that time, Project Gutenberg was about twenty-five years old. It was the brainchild of a University of Illinois student, Michael Hart, who in 1971 uploaded a transcribed copy of the Declaration of Independence onto what was then the ARPANET in its infancy, making it freely available to anyone who had access to that network. It was his way of saying “thank you” for the free computer access he enjoyed at a time when this was a precious commodity. In so doing, Hart became inventor of the e-book.
Other freely available texts followed in what he named “Project Gutenberg” for Johannes Gutenberg, the printer who invented movable type, making the printing revolution possible. Hart believed one day the public would have wide access to computer networks, and he envisioned making books and other texts in the public domain available at no cost to anyone. His goal was to make 10,000 e-books available by the year 2000.
By 1995, Project Gutenberg had moved to Illinois Benedictine College. Hart had a number of volunteers working with him. Until 1989, text was manually digitized. Optical scanners sped up the process, with volunteers enlisted to proofread scanned text for accuracy against the original. In 1994, Pietro Di Miceli took on developing the Project Gutenberg website, which won many awards for design in its early years. This was at the time when Mosaic became a widely available internet browser and we moved from text to graphical user interfaces.
By 2003, a DVD was released with 10,000 items from Project Gutenberg, most of the collection at that time, realizing Hart’s goal within three years of his original target. Today, Project Gutenberg is hosted at the University of North Carolina and offers more than 60,000 items in its collection. It continues to be a volunteer driven project, with volunteers selecting books to digitize. Distributed Proofreaders allows volunteers to collaborate on digitizing books, both lightening the load and speeding the process.
If you have not used Project Gutenberg, the homepage serves to help one navigate the site. You can search and browse by author, title, subject, language, type, popularity, and more. There are Bookshelves of related e-books by topic. You can look up the most downloaded titles (tops is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). You can look up the recently added works. There is a section on Tablets, Phones and eReader How-tos. There are options to download books as e-pubs, in Kindle formats, and in other formats.
And all of this is still free. While much enhanced since my first visits in 1995, it still reflects the values and vision of the early internet, which so many thought a wondrous place. At the page, 50 years of e-Books: 1971-2021, there is this statement:
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.”
At a time when some state and individual actors are trying to limit access to particular texts, it seems this work is more important than ever, even if it is focused on books in the public domain. These books also have “dangerous ideas” — ones that speak to our basic human rights and the liberties that we can never take for granted. Hart’s first upload, The Declaration of Independence, was one of those.