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The world’s great books at your fingertips

Created date

October 25th, 2011

For years they ve sat nestled on the dusty shelves and in the musty alcoves of libraries around the world, their pages filled with the ideas and plotlines of some of the best writers ever to take up a pen. Books by authors like Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, and Alexis de Tocqueville are masterpieces that have stood not only the test of time but technology. The dawn of the 21st century has brought the traditionally print-based publishing industry to a crossroads, with the wide availability of home computers, high-speed Internet, and eBook readers changing the way we consume information.

Classics for free

There are those who believe that print is king, that the textured feel of crisply cut pages between their fingertips is sacred. Yet others have embraced the electronic book with open arms, and a nonprofit organization called Project Gutenberg is giving them the classics for free. In fact, Project Gutenberg was sending literature into the digital ether of cyberspace long before the World Wide Web was a household name. Using a primitive computer network at the University of Illinois, the group s founder Michael Hart began in 1971 with theDeclaration of Independence. Today, the project s holdings comprise an estimated 40,000 titles in 60 languages, there for the reading with just a few keystrokes an impressive feat considering the average public library in America has roughly 30,000 volumes. At Project Gutenberg, we want to make the world s greatest books electronically available to readers everywhere and for free, says Greg Newby, the project s director and CEO. Anyone with an eBook reader or a laptop computer can have a vast library of classics, thousands of books you can carry with you on a device not much thicker than a folder.

Volunteer effort

Project Gutenberg volunteers go through a tedious and painstaking process to do this. The first step is scanning each page with the help of software that employs technology called optical character recognition (OCR), which literally reads the typeface in the scanned image, converting it to text in a computer program. Next, the scanned images go through a rigorous proofing stage in which editors look for what Newby playfully refers to as scanos (the scanner equivalent of a typo). Programmers then format the pages to produce a clean, easily readable product that resembles a printed book. Once volunteers have scanned, proofed, and formatted the books, they load them into a massive database, ready to download and enjoy. And while the site itself may not be flashy, it does a lot. Our collection is completely searchable and displays results by author, title, and subject, Newby explains. When you find the result you want, you click a link that allows you to download the book as a file that s readable on computers and eReaders. A search of Project Gutenberg s database turns up just about any classic imaginable. Over 41,000 visitors have downloaded works by William Shakespeare, several of them presented in both English and German. Type in Jane Austen, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and you ll find everything from edited anthologies of their stories to full novels, all of them in the public domain.

Self-published works

According to Newby, the collection is constantly expanding, as is the project s desire to revolutionize the way people read and distribute books. In addition to building its catalog of classic literature, Project Gutenberg has joined the increasingly popular self-publication market, but with one important stipulation. We are giving writers the chance to electronically publish their own works for free, making them accessible to the public with no strings attached, states Newby. The author s relationship with us is totally non-exclusive, meaning you can publish your writing at Project Gutenberg and still take it elsewhere; perhaps even using the exposure to garner a book deal with a major publisher. You can visit Project Gutenberg at and its self-publishing site at