Project Gutenberg founder Michael Stern Hart: an e-book visionary

Hart was a college student in 1971 when he first glimpsed the potential of the e-book.

Hart's belief that classic books and important documents should be available to everyone for free was the bedrock of his philosophy for Project Gutenberg.

In today’s world, e-books are everywhere – on the subway, in the library, on line at the post office, and even on a sunny beach.

But in 1971, such accessibility and popularity was unimaginable. Yet that was when Project Gutenberg founder Michael Stern Hart – who died on Sept. 6 – started typing historical documents into a computer network.

Today, the website Project Gutenberg offers over 36,000 e-books for free download, with a library that includes “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” “Peter Pan,” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” The books – which are are digitized and proofed by volunteers – can be downloaded to a PC, Kindle, and Android as well as other devices. Many are in the public domain.

Hart was still a college student in 1971 when he uploaded his first document, the Declaration of Independence, borrowing on $100,000,000 of computer time on a large mainframe computer at the University of Illinois, where he was a student. Six members in the network downloaded the Declaration, which reinforced Hart’s belief that there was a demand for important historical documents being available over a computer.

The documents uploaded to Project Gutenberg were foundational texts at first, such as the King James Bible. But then Hart heard about a group of children eagerly reading “Alice in Wonderland” on the computer and realized the potential for digitized literature.

Today, the website comprises three sections: light literature, which includes titles like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Aesop’s Fables”; heavy literature, which comprises titles like “Moby Dick” and “Paradise Lost”; and references, which includes dictionaries.

Readers turn to Project Gutenberg for a wide variety of texts. The bestseller on the Project Gutenberg website for Sept. 8 was “The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana” by Vatsyayana with 1,768 downloads, with “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle following in second place with 735 downloads.

After college, Hart worked a variety of jobs to get money for his own living as well as Project Gutenberg. He spoke out against US copyright laws that kept books out of the public domain for many years and also publicly expressed disdain for practices in the publishing world that he saw as making money from books by deceased authors. His belief that classic books and important documents should be available to everyone for free was the bedrock of his philosophy for Project Gutenberg.

Today most industry experts agree that to have considered electronic books in 1971 – a time when the idea of using even the most basic computers in our daily lives was still years away – showed extraordinary foresight. Hart blazed a trail towards an idea that was finally realized only decades later. One can only hope that last month when Barnes and Noble announced a 140 percent increase in sales of Nook during the first 2012 sales quarter, someone at the bookselling giant took a moment to gratefully remember Michael Stern Hart.

Services for Hart will most likely take place in Champaign, Illinois, according to the Project Gutenberg website. Those considering a donation are requested to give to the Project.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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