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Project Gutenberg (1971-2008)

Project Gutenberg (1971-2008)

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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Project Gutenberg (1971-2008), by Marie Lebert

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

** This is a COPYRIGHTED Project Gutenberg eBook, Details Below ** ** Please follow the copyright guidelines in this file. **

Title: Project Gutenberg (1971-2008)

Author: Marie Lebert

Release Date: October 26, 2008 [EBook #27045]

Language: English


Produced by Al Haines



NEF, University of Toronto & Project Gutenberg, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Marie Lebert

This long article is dated May 2008. With many thanks to the great people who
helped me, especially Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, and Russon
Wooldridge, founder of NEF. All the mistakes are mine - my mother tongue is not
English, but French. This article is also available in French: Le Projet
Gutenberg (1971-2008).


1. Overview

2. A Bet Since 1971

3. The Method

4. Shared Proofreading

5. Becoming Multingual

6. Public Domain vs. Copyright

7. From the Past to the Future

8. Chronology

9. Stats

10. Links


August 1997: 1,000 books; April 2002: 5,000 books; October 2003: 10,000 books; January 2005: 15,000 books; December 2006: 20,000 books; April 2008: 25,000 books.

In July 1971, Michael Hart created Project Gutenberg with the goal of making available for free, and electronically, literary works belonging to public domain. A pioneer site in a number of ways, Project Gutenberg was the first information provider on the internet and is the oldest digital library. When the internet became popular, in the mid-1990s, the project got a boost and an international dimension. The number of electronic books rose from 1,000 (in August 1997) to 5,000 (in April 2002), 10,000 (in October 2003), 15,000 (in January 2005), 20,000 (in December 2006) and 25,000 (in April 2008), with a current production rate of around 340 new books each month. With 55 languages and 40 mirror sites around the world, books are being downloaded by the tens of thousands every day. Project Gutenberg promotes digitization in “text format”, meaning that a book can be copied, indexed, searched, analyzed and compared with other books. Contrary to other formats, the files are accessible for low-bandwidth use. The main source of new Project Gutenberg eBooks is Distributed Proofreaders, launched in October 2000 by Charles Franks to help in the digitizing of books from public domain.

2. A BET SINCE 1971

= In a Few Words

If the print book is 5 centuries and a half old, the electronic book is only 37 years old. It is born with Project Gutenberg, created by Michael Hart in July 1971 to make available for free electronic versions of literary books belonging to public domain. A pioneer site in a number of ways, Project Gutenberg was the first information provider on an embryonic internet and is the oldest digital library. Long considered by its critics as impossible on a large scale, Project Gutenberg counted 25,000 books in April 2008, with tens of thousands downloads daily. To this day, nobody has done a better job of putting the world's literature at everyone's disposal. And to create a vast network of volunteers all over the world, without wasting people's skills or energy.

During the fist twenty years, Michael Hart himself keyed in the first hundred books, with the occasional help of others from time to time. When the internet became popular, in the mid-1990s, the project got a boost and an international dimension. Michael still typed and scanned in books, but now coordinated the work of dozens and then hundreds of volunteers in many countries. The number of electronic books rose from 1,000 (in August 1997) to 2,000 (in May 1999), 3,000 (in December 2000) and 4,000 (in October 2001).

37 years after its birth, Project Gutenberg is running at full capacity. It had 5,000 books online in April 2002, 10,000 books in October 2003, 15,000 books in January 2005, 20,000 books in December 2006 and 25,000 books in April 2008, with 340 new books available per month, 40 mirror sites in a number of countries, books downloaded by the tens of thousands every day, and tens of thousands of volunteers in various teams.

Whether they were digitized 30 years ago or they are digitized now, all the books are captured in Plain Vanilla ASCII (the original 7-bit ASCII), with the same formatting rules, so they can be read easily by any machine, operating system or software, including on a PDA, a cell phone or an eBook reader. Any individual or organization is free to convert them to different formats, without any restriction except respect for copyright laws in the country involved.

In January 2004, Project Gutenberg had spread across the Atlantic with the creation of Project Gutenberg Europe. On top of its original mission, it also became a bridge between languages and cultures, with a number of national and linguistic sections. While adhering to the same principle: books for all and for free, through electronic versions that can be used and reproduced indefinitely. And, as a second step, the digitization of images and sound, in the same spirit.

= Beginning and Persevering

Let us get back to the beginnings of the project. When he was a student at the University of Illinois (USA), Michael Hart was given $100,000,000 of computer time at the Materials Research Lab of his university. On July 4, 1971, on Independence Day, Michael keyed in The United States Declaration of Independence (signed on July 4, 1776) to the mainframe he was using. In upper case, because there was no lower case yet. But to send a 5 K file to the 100 users of the embryonic internet would have crashed the network. So Michael mentioned where the eText was stored (though without a hypertext link, because the web was still 20 years ahead). It was downloaded by six users. Project Gutenberg was born.

Michael decided to use this huge amount of computer time to search the public domain books that were stored in our libraries, and to digitize these books. He also decided to store the electronic texts (eTexts) in the simplest way, using the plain text format called Plain Vanilla ASCII, so they can be read easily by any machine, operating system or software. A book would become a continuous text file instead of a set of pages, with caps for the terms in italic, bold or underlined of the print version.

Soon afterwards he defined Project Gutenberg's mission: to put at everyone's disposal, in electronic versions, as many literary works of the public domain as possible for free. As he stated years later, in August 1998, "We consider eText to be a new medium, with no real relationship to paper, other than presenting the same material, but I don't see how paper can possibly compete once people each find their own comfortable way to