A History of Project Gutenberg from 1971-2005

by Marie Lebert on February 2, 2008

This article is dedicated to all Project Gutenberg and Distributed Proofreaders volunteers on the five continents, who offer us a free library of 16,000 high-quality eBooks, mainly classics of world literature, with a goal of one million eBooks in ten years. This article is also available in French.


My fascination for Project Gutenberg is not new, but it doesn’t wane. 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.

Here is the story in a few lines.

In July 1971, Michael Hart created Project Gutenberg with the goal of making available for free, and electronically, literary works belonging to the public domain. A project that has long been considered by its critics as impossible on a large scale. A pioneer site in a number of ways, Project Gutenberg was the first information provider on the internet and is the oldest digital library. Michael himself keyed in the first hundred books.

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).

30 years after its birth, Project Gutenberg is running at full capacity. It had 5,000 books online in April 2002, 10,000 books online in October 2003, and 15,000 books online in January 2005, with 400 new books available per month, 40 mirror sites in a number of countries, and books downloaded by the tens of thousands every day.

Whether they were digitized 20 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 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 goal of one million eBooks in 2015, and 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.

History, From the Origins to Today

The Beginnings in 1971

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 eTexts, especially in schools.”

Persevering from 1972 to 1989

After he keyed in The United States Declaration of Independence in 1971, Michael went on in 1972 and typed in a longer text, The United States Bill of Rights, that includes the ten first amendments added in 1789 to the Constitution (dated 1787) and defining the individual rights of the citizens and the distinct powers ot the Federal Government and the States. In 1973, Michael typed in the full text of The United States Constitution.

From one year to the next, disk space was getting larger, by the standards of the time (there was no hard disk yet), so it was possible to plan bigger files. Michael began typing in the Bible, because the individual books of the Bible could be processed separately as different files. He also worked on the collected works of Shakespeare, with one play at a time, and a file for each play. That edition of Shakespeare was never released, due to copyright changes. If Shakespeare’s works belong to the public domain, the comments and notes may be copyrighted, depending on the publication date. But other editions belonging to the public domain were posted a few years later.

In parallel, the internet, which was still embryonic in 1971, was born in 1974 with the launching of TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol). Its rapid expansion started in 1983.

In August 1989, Project Gutenberg celebrated the completion of its 10th eText, The King James Bible.

10 to 1,000 eBooks from 1990 to 1996

In 1990, there were 250,000 internet users, and the standard was 360 K disks. In January 1991, Michael keyed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (published in 1865). In July 1991, he typed in Peter Pan, by James M. Barrie (published in 1904). These two worldwide classics of childhood literature each fitted on one disk.

1991 was also the year the web became operational. The first browser, Mosaic, was released in November 1993. As the web was becoming a popular medium, it became easier to circulate eTexts and recruit volunteers. Project Gutenberg gradually got into its stride, with the digitization of one eText per month in 1991, two eTexts per month in 1992, four eTexts per month in 1993 and eight eTexts per month in 1994. In January 1994, Project Gutenberg celebrated its 100th eText by releasing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The steady growth went on, with an average of 8 eTexts per month in 1994, 16 eTexts per month in 1995, and 32 eTexts per month in 1996.

As we can see, from 1991 to 1996, the “output” doubled every year. While continuing to digitize books, Michael was also coordinating the work of dozens of volunteers. At the end of 1993, Project Gutenberg’s eTexts were organized into three main sections: a) “Light Literature”, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,

Peter Pan or Aesop’s Fables; b) “Heavy Literature”, such as the Bible, Shakespeare’s works or Moby Dick; c) “Reference Literature”, such as Roget’s Thesaurus, and a set of encyclopaedias and dictionaries.

Project Gutenberg’s goal is to be “universal” both for the literary works that are chosen and the audience who reads them. The goal is to put literature at everyone’s disposal. With a focus on books that many people would use frequently, and not only students and teachers. For example, the “Light Literature” section is intended for pre-schoolers as well as their grandparents. The aim is that they will want to look up the eText of Peter Pan when they come back from watching Hook at the movies. Or that they will read the eText of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland after seeing it on TV. Or that they will look for the context of a quotation after hearing it in one of the Star Trek episodes; nearly every episode of Star Trek quotes from books which are in the Project Gutenberg collections.

The idea is that, whether they were avid readers of print books or not in the past, people should easily be able to look up quotations they hear in conversations, movies, music, or they read in books, newspapers and magazines, within a library containing all these quotations in an easy-to-use format. eTexts don’t take up much space in ASCII format. They can be easily downloaded with a standard phone line. Searching a word or a phrase is simple too. People can easily search an entire eText by using the plain “search” menu available in any program.”

1,000 eBooks in August 1997

In 1997, the “output” was still an average of 32 eTexts per month. In June 1997, Project Gutenberg released The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle (published in 1883). In August 1997, it released its 1000th eText, La Divina Commedia di Dante (published in 1321), in Italian, its original language.

In August 1998, Michael wrote: “My own personal goal is to put 10,000 eTexts on the Net [editor’s note: his goal was reached in October 2003] and if I can get some major support, I would like to expand that to 1,000,000 and to also expand our potential audience for the average eText from 1.x% of the world population to over 10%, thus changing our goal from giving away 1,000,000,000,000 eTexts to 1,000 times as many, a trillion and a quadrillion in US terminology.”

1,000 to 5,000 eBooks from 1998 to 2002

From 1998 to 2000, there was a steadfast average of 36 new eTexts per month. In May 1999, there were 2,000 eTexts. The 2000th eText was Don Quijote, by Cervantes (published in 1605), in Spanish, its original language.

Around 40 eTexts per month were released during the 1st semester 2001, and 50 eTexts during the 2nd semester. Released in December 2000, the 3000th eText was the third volume of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), by Marcel Proust (published in 1919), in French, its original language.

Released in October 2001, the 4000th eText was The French Immortals Series, in English. Published in 1905 by Maison Mazarin, Paris, this book is an anthology of short fictions by authors belonging to the renowned French Academy (Académie française), notably Emile Souvestre, Pierre Loti, Hector Malot, Charles de Bernard and Alphonse Daudet.

Available in April 2002, the 5000th eText was The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which he wrote at the beginning of the 16th century. A text that is still in the Top 100 of downloaded texts in 2005.

In 1988, Michael Hart chose to digitize Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan because they each fitted on one 360 K disk, the standard of the time. Fifteen years later, in 2002, 1.44 M is the standard disk and ZIP is the standard compression. The practical file size is about 3 million characters, more than long enough for the average book. The digitized ASCII version of a 300-page novel is 1 M. A bulky book can fit in two ASCII files, that can be downloaded as is or in ZIP format.

An average of 50 hours is necessary to get an eText selected, copyright-cleared, scanned, proofread, formatted and assembled.

A few numbers are reserved for “special” books. For example, eText number 1984 is reserved for George Orwell’s classic, published in 1949, and still a long way from falling into the public domain.

In 2002, around 100 eTexts were released per month. In Spring 2002, Project Gutenberg’s eTexts represented 1/4 of all the public domain works freely available on the web and listed nearly exhaustively by The Internet Public Library (IPL). An impressive result thanks to the relentless work of 1,000 volunteers in several countries.

10,000 eBooks in October 2003

1,000 eTexts in August 1997, 2,000 eTexts in May 1999, 3,000 eTexts in December 2000, 4,000 eTexts in October 2001, 5,000 eTexts in April 2002, 10,000 eTexts in October 2003. eText number 10000 is The Magna Carta, the first English constitutional text, signed at the beginning of the 13th century.

From April 2002 to October 2003, in 18 months, the number of eTexts doubled, going from 5,000 to 10,000, with a monthly average of 300 new digitized books. In December 2003, most of the titles (9,400 eBooks) were also burned on a DVD to celebrate the landmark of 10,000 eTexts, renamed as eBooks, according to the latest terminology in the field. A few months before, in August 2003, a “Best of Gutenberg” CD was made available containing 600 eBooks (as a follow-up to other CDs in the past). People could request the CD and DVD for free, and were then encouraged to make copies for a friend, a library or a school. (In 2005, CD and DVD files are also periodically generated as ISO files. When downloaded, they can be used to make a CD or DVD using a CD or DVD writer.)

10,000 eBooks. An impressive number if we think about all the scanned and proofread pages this number represents. A fast growth thanks to Distributed Proofreaders, a website designed in 2000 by Charles Franks to share the proofreading of eBooks between many volunteers. Volunteers choose one of the eBooks listed on the site and proofread a given page. They don’t have any quota to fulfill, but it is recommended they do a page per day if possible. It doesn’t seem much, but with hundreds of volunteers it really adds up.

In December 2003, there were 11,000 eBooks digizited in several formats, most of them in ASCII, and some of them in HTML or XML. This represented 46,000 files, and 110 G. On 13 February 2004, the day of Michael Hart’s presentation at UNESCO, in Paris (see below), there were exactly 11,340 eBooks in 25 languages. In May 2004, the 12,581 eBooks represented 100,000 files in 20 different formats, and 135 gigabytes. With 400 new eBooks added per month (and more in the years to come), the number of gigabytes is expected to double every year.

15,000 eBooks in January 2005

In January 2005, Project Gutenberg had 15,000 eBooks. eBook number 15000 is The Life of Reason, by George Santayana (published in 1906). On June 16, 2005 there were 16,481 eBooks in 42 languages. On August 3, 2005, besides English (14,590 eBooks), the six main languages were French (578 eBooks), German (349 eBooks), Finnish (225 eBooks), Dutch (130 eBooks), Spanish (105 eBooks) and Chinese (69 eBooks).

Michael hopes to reach 1,000,000 eBooks by 2015. Each email he sends includes the current number, and the next significant goal to reach. As of July 2005, the next goal is 20,000 eBooks. This goal should be reached in July 2006, for the 35th anniversary of Project Gutenberg.

Conceived in January 2004, at the same time as the launching of Distributed Proofreaders Europe (DP Europe) by Project Rastko, Project Gutenberg Europe went online in June 2005 and released the 100 first eBooks processed by DP Europe over the past several months. These eBooks are in several languages, a reflection of European linguistic diversity. 100 languages are planned for the long term.

In July 2005, Project Gutenberg of Australia (launched in 2001) reached 500 eBooks, and Project Gutenberg of Canada took its first steps (see the PGCanada List). Project Gutenberg Portugal and Project Gutenberg Philippines will be next. (For the latest news, check the News and Events of Project Gutenberg.)

The Public Domain, an Endless Topic

Despite the enthusiasm and the persistence of its hundreds of volunteers, the task of Project Gutenberg isn’t made any easier by the increasing restrictions to the public domain. As stated in the FAQ, “the public domain is the set of cultural works that are free of copyright, and belong to everyone equally.” In former times, 50% of works belonged to the public domain, and could be freely used by everybody. Nowadays, 99% of works are governed by copyright, and some people would like this percentage to reach 100%.

In the Copyright HowTo section, Project Gutenberg presents its own rules for confirming the public domain status of eBooks according to US copyright laws. Here is a summary. Works published before 1923 entered the public domain no later than 75 years from the copyright date. (All these works are now in the public domain.) Works published between 1923 and 1977 retain copyright for 95 years. (No such works will enter the public domain until 2019.) Works created from 1978 on enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the author if the author is a natural person. (Nothing will enter the public domain until 2049.) Works created from 1978 on enter the public domain 95 years after publication (or 120 years after creation) if the author is a corporate one. (Nothing will enter the public domain until 2074.) Other rules apply too.

Much more restrictive than the previous one, the current legislation became effective after the promulgation of amendments to the 1976 Copyright Act, dated October 27th, 1998. As explained by Michael Hart in July 1999: “Nothing will expire for another 20 years. We used to have to wait 75 years. Now it is 95 years. And it was 28 years (+ a possible 28 year extension, only on request) before that, and 14 years (+ a possible 14 year extension) before that. So, as you can see, this is a serious degrading of the public domain, as a matter of continuing policy.”

The dates mentioned by Michael are: a) 1790, date of the stranglehold of the Stationers’ Guild (the publishers of the time) on the Gutenberg printing press (hence the 14-year copyright); b) 1909, date of the copyright reinforcement to counter the re-publishing of large collections of the public domain by reprint houses using steam and electric presses (hence the 28-year copyright); c) 1976, date of a new tightening of the copyright following the introduction of the Xerox photocopying machine (hence the 50-year copyright after the author’s life); d) 1998, date of a further tightening of the copyright following the development of the internet (hence the 70-year copyright after the author’s life). These are only the main lines. The Copyright Act has been amended 11 times in the last 40 years.

As stated by Tom W. Bell in Trend of Maximum U.S. General Copyright Term (with a very useful chart): “The first federal copyright legislation, the 1790 Copyright Act, set the maximum term at fourteen years plus a renewal term of fourteen years. The 1831 Copyright Act doubled the initial term and retained the conditional renewal term, allowing a total of up to forty-two years of protection. Lawmakers doubled the renewal term in 1909, letting copyrights run for up to fifty-six years. The interim renewal acts of 1962 through 1974 ensured that the copyright in any work in its second term as of September 19, 1962, would not expire before Dec. 31, 1976. The 1976 Copyright Act changed the measure of the default copyright term to life of the author plus fifty years. Recent amendments to the Copyright Act [the ones in 1998] expanded the term yet again, letting it run for the life of the author plus seventy years.”

The amendments of the Copyright Act, dated October 27, 1998, were a major blow for digital libraries and deeply shocked their founders, beginning with Michael Hart and John Mark Ockerbloom, founder of The Online Books Page. But how were they to measure up to the major publishing companies? Michael wrote in July 1999: “No one has said more against copyright extensions than I have, but Hollywood and the big publishers have seen to it that our Congress won’t even mention it in public. The kind of copyright debate going on is totally impractical. It is run by and for the ‘Landed Gentry of the Information Age.’ ‘Information Age’? For whom?”

True enough. The political authorities continually speak about an information age while tightening the laws relating to the dissemination of information. The contradiction is obvious. This problem has also affected Australia (forcing Project Gutenberg of Australia to withdraw dozens of books from its collections) and several European countries. In a number of countries, the rule is now life of the author plus 70 years, instead of life plus 50 years, following pressure from content owners, with the subsequent “harmonization” of national copyright laws as a response to the “globalization of the market”. (The Online Books Page gives a summary of the various copyright regimes, with a number of useful links.)

Now, from the volunteer point of view, the wisest thing to do is to choose a book published before 1923. It is also required that copyright clearance be confirmed prior to working on any eBook by sending a photocopy of the title page and verso page (even if the latter is blank) to Michael. The pages should be sent as scans to be uploaded on the website. For people who cannot create scans, it is possible to send photocopies by postal mail. The pages will then be filed, either on paper or electronically, so that the proof will be available in the future, to demonstrate if necessary that the book is in the public domain under the US law. Project Gutenberg doesn’t release any eBook until the book’s copyright status has been confirmed.

There is nevertheless hope for some books published after 1923. According to Greg Newby, director of PGLAF (Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation), one million books published between 1923 and 1964 could also belong to the public domain, because only 10% of copyrights were actually renewed. Project Gutenberg tries to locate these books. In April 2004, with the help of hundreds of volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders, all Copyright Renewal records were posted for books from 1950 through 1977. So, if a given book published during this period is not on the list, it means the copyright was not renewed, and the book fell into the public domain.

The Method Adopted by Project Gutenberg

Whether digitized years ago or now, all the books are digitized in 7-bit plain ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), called Plain Vanilla ASCII. Used since the beginnings of computing, it is the set of unaccented characters present on a standard English-language keyboard (A-Z, a-z, numbers, punctuation and other basic symbols). When 8-bit ASCII (also called ISO-8859 or ISO-Latin) is used for books with accented characters like French or German, Project Gutenberg also produces a 7-bit ASCII version with the accents stripped. (This doesn’t apply for languages that are not “convertible” in ASCII, like Chinese, encoded in Big-5.)

Plain Vanilla ASCII is the best format by far. It is “the lowest common denominator”. It can be read, written, copied and printed by any simple text editor or word processor on every computer in the world. It is the only format compatible with 99% of hardware and software. It can be used as it is or to create versions in many other formats. It will still be used while other formats will be obsolete (or are already obsolete, like formats of a few short-lived reading devices launched between 1999 and 2003). It is the assurance collections will never be obsolete, and will survive future technological changes. The goal is to preserve the texts not only over decades but over centuries. There is no other standard as widely used as ASCII right now, even Unicode, a “universal” encoding system created in 1991.

Project Gutenberg also publishes eBooks in well-known formats like HTML, XML or RTF. There are Unicode files too. Any other format provided by volunteers (PDF, LIT, TeX and many others) is usually accepted, as long as they also supply an ASCII version where possible.

But a large scale conversion into other formats is handed over to other organizations. For example Blackmask Online, which uses Project Gutenberg’s collections to offer thousands of free eBooks in eight different formats based on the Open eBook (OeB) format. Or Manybooks.net, which converts Project Gutenberg’s eBooks into formats readable on PDAs. Or Bookshare.org, the main digital library for the visual impaired community in the US, which converts books from Project Gutenberg into Braille format and DAISY (Digital Audio Information System) format.

What is entailed exactly, once copyright clearance is received? Digitization is done by scanning the book page after page to get “image” files. Then volunteers run an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to convert “image” files into text files. Then each text file is proofread (i.e. re-read and corrected) by comparing it to the “image” file or the original page of the print version. There is an average of 10 mistakes per page for a good OCR package and… many more mistakes if the quality of the scanner and the OCR package is not great.

The book is proofread twice on the computer screen by two different people, who make any corrections necessary. When the original is in poor condition, as with very old books, it is keyed in manually, word by word. Some volunteers themselves prefer to type short texts, or works they particularly like. But most books are scanned, “OCRized” and proofread.

Digitization in “text format” means a book can be copied, indexed, searched, analyzed and compared with other books. It is possible to search the content of the book with the “Find” button available in any browser and any software, without a specific search engine. Project Gutenberg provides a “Nearly Full Text” search (on the first 100 K of each file) using Google, with a database updated approximately monthly. It also provides a search of book metadata (author, title, brief description, keywords) as a participant in Yahoo!’s Content Acquisition Program, with a database updated weekly. (Please see the bottom of the Online Book Catalog.) In the Advanced Search, several fields can be filled: author, title, subject, language, category (any, audio book, music, pictures), LoCC (Library of Congress Catalog classification), filetype (text, PDF, HTML, XML, JPEG, etc.), and eText/eBook No. A field “Full Text” was recently added as an experimental feature.

The assets of digitization in “text format” are numerous. It makes a smaller and more easily sendable computer file, unlike digitization in “image format”, which produces a bulky “photo” file. Contrary to other formats, the files are accessible for low-bandwidth use. They can be copied as much as needed to produce new digital or print versions for free. The typos pointed out after the text is released can be fixed at any time. Readers can change the font and size of characters, the margins or the number of lines per page. Visually impaired readers can increase the letter size. Blind readers can use speech recognition software. All this is very difficult, if not impossible, with many other formats.

If the eBooks released are 99.9% accurate in the eyes of the general reader, the goal is not to create authoritative editions, and to argue with a picky reader whether a certain sentence should have a colon instead of a semi-colon between its clauses.

Project Gutenberg is convinced that proofreading by human beings is a very important step, and that this step makes all the difference. The use of scanned books as is –converted to text format by OCR software with no proofreading– gives a much lower quality result. After running OCR software, the text is 99% reliable, in the best of cases. After proofreading, the text becomes 99.95% reliable (a high percentage which is also the standard at the Library of Congress).

For this reason, Project Gutenberg’s perspective is rather different from that of the Million Book Project, another project launched by several professors from Carnegie Mellon University, and whose collections (10,611 books on June 1st, 2005) are hosted by the Internet Archive (the Internet Archive is also the backup distribution site of Project Gutenberg). In the case of the Million Book Project, books are scanned and “OCRized”, but they are not proofread. The main formats used are XML, TIF and DjVu.

On Project Gutenberg’s website, a File Recode Service allows users to convert books in one format (ASCII, ISO-8859, Unicode and Big-5) into another, and vice versa. A much more powerful conversion program may be launched in the future, with a conversion into still more formats (XML, HTML, PDF, TeX, RTF), including Braille and voice. It will then also be possible to choose the font and size of characters and the background color. Another eagerly expected conversion is that of a book from one language to another by machine translation software. This may be possible in a few years, when machine translation is accurate to 99%.

Distributed Proofreaders, to Handle Shared Proofreading

The main “leap forward” of Project Gutenberg in the last few years is due to Distributed Proofreaders.

Distributed Proofreaders was conceived in 2000 by Charles Franks to help in the digitizing of public domain books. Originally meant to assist Project Gutenberg in the handling of shared proofreading, Distributed Proofreaders became the main source of Project Gutenberg eBooks. In 2002, Distributed Proofreaders became an official Project Gutenberg site.

The number of eBooks that have been processed through Distributed Proofreaders has grown fast, with a total of 3,000 eBooks in February 2004, 5,000 eBooks in October 2004 and 7,000 eBooks in May 2005. On August 3, 2005, 7,639 books were complete (processed through the site and posted to Project Gutenberg), 1,250 books were in progress (processed through the site but not yet posted, because currently going through their final proofreading and assembly), and 831 books were being proofread (currently being processed).

From the website one can access a program that allows several proofreaders to be working on the same book at the same time, each proofreading on different pages. This significantly speeds up the proofreading process. Volunteers register and receive detailed instructions. For example, words in bold, italic or underlined, or footnotes are always treated the same way for any eBook. A discussion forum allows them to ask questions or seek help at any time. A project manager oversees the progress of a particular book through its different steps on the website.

Each time proofreaders go to the website, they choose the book they want. One page of the book appears in two forms side by side: the scanned image of one page and the text from that image (as produced by OCR software). The proofreader can easily compare both versions, note the differences and fix them. OCR is usually 99% accurate, which makes for about 10 corrections a page. The proofreader saves each page as it is completed and can then either stop work or do another. The books are proofread twice, and the second time only by experienced proofreaders. All the pages of the book are then formatted, combined and assembled by post-processors to make an eBook. (For more detailed information, check the FAQ Central.) The eBook is now ready to be posted with an index entry (title, subtitle, author, eBook number and character set) for the database. Indexers go on with the cataloguing process (author’s dates of birth and death, Library of Congress classification, etc.) after the release.

Volunteers don’t have a quota to fill, but it is recommended they do a page a day if possible. It doesn’t seem much, but with hundreds of volunteers it really adds up. In 2003, about 250-300 people were working each day all over the world, producing a daily total of 2,500-3,000 pages, the equivalent of two pages a minute. In 2004, the average was 300-400 proofreaders participating each day, and finishing 4,000-7,000 pages per day, the equivalent of four pages a minute.

Volunteers can also work independently, after contacting Project Gutenberg directly, by keying in a book they particularly like using any text editor or word processor. They can also scan it and convert it into text using OCR software, and then make corrections by comparing it with the original. In each case, someone else will proofread it. They can use ASCII and any other format. Everybody is welcome, whatever the method and whatever the format.

New volunteers are most welcome too at Distributed Proofreaders (DP-INT) and Distributed Proofreaders Europe (DP Europe). Any volunteer anywhere is welcome, for any language. There is a lot to do. As stated on both websites, “Remember that there is no commitment expected on this site. Proofread as often or as seldom as you like, and as many or as few pages as you like. We encourage people to do ‘a page a day’, but it’s entirely up to you! We hope you will join us in our mission of ‘preserving the literary history of the world in a freely available form for everyone to use’.”

eBooks in More and More Languages

What about languages?

Initially, the eBooks were mostly in English. As Project Gutenberg is based in the United States, it first focused on the English-speaking community in the country and worldwide.

In October 1997, Michael Hart expressed his intention to expand the publishing of eBooks in other languages. At the beginning of 1998, the catalog had a few titles in French (10 titles), German, Italian, Spanish and Latin. In July 1999, Michael wrote: “I am publishing in one new language per month right now, and will continue as long as possible.”

In early 2004, there were works in 25 languages. In July 2005, there were works in 42 languages, including Iroquoian, Sanskrit and the Mayan languages. The seven “main” languages were: English (with 14,548 books on July 27, 2005), French (577 books), German (349 books), Finnish (218 books), Dutch (130 books), Spanish (103 books) and Chinese (69 books).

Let us take French as an example. On February 13, 2004, there were 181 eBooks in French (out of a total of 11,340 eBooks). On May 16, 2005, there were 547 eBooks in French (out of 15,505 Books). The number tripled in 15 months. This number should rise significantly during the next few years, notably with Project Gutenberg Europe (launched in June 2005).

What were the first eBooks posted in French? They were six novels by Stendhal and two novels by Jules Verne, all released in early 1997. The six novels by Stendhal were: L’Abbesse de Castro, Les Cenci, La Chartreuse de Parme, La Duchesse de Palliano, Le Rouge et le Noir and Vittoria Accoramboni. The two novels by Jules Verne were: De la terre à la lune and Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours. In early 1997, whereas Project Gutenberg offered no English version of any of Stendhal’s writings (yet), three of Jules Verne’s novels were available in English: 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas (original title: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), posted in September 1994; Around the World in 80 Days (original title: Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours), posted in January 1994 and From the Earth to the Moon(original title: De la terre à la lune), posted in September 1993. Stendhal and Jules Verne were followed by Edmond Rostand with Cyrano de Bergerac, posted in March 1998.

In late 1999, the “Top 20” –the 20 most downloaded authors– included Jules Verne at 11 and Emile Zola at 16. They still have a very good ranking in the present “Top 100“.

As a side remark, the first “images” ever made available by Project Gutenberg were French Cave Paintings, posted in April 1995, with an XHTML version posted in November 2000. This eBook contains four photos of paleolithic paintings found in a grotto located in Ardèche, a region of south-eastern France. These photos, which are copyrighted, were made available to Project Gutenberg thanks to Jean Clottes, a French general curator for cultural heritage (conservateur général du patrimoine), for everyone to enjoy them.

Multilingualism is now one of the priorities of Project Gutenberg, like internationalization. In early 2004, Michael Hart went off to Europe, with stops in Paris, Brussels and Belgrade. He gave a lecture on February 12, 2004 at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) headquarters in Paris. He chaired a discussion at the French National Assembly on February 13. The following week, he addressed the European Parliament, in Brussels. He also met with the team of Project Rastko, in Belgrade, to support the creation of Distributed Proofreaders Europe (launched in January 2004) and Project Gutenberg Europe (conceived at the same time, and launched in June 2005).

The launching of Distributed Proofreaders Europe (DP Europe) by Project Rastko was indeed a very important step. DP Europe uses the software of the original Distributed Proofreaders and is dedicated to the proofreading of eBooks for Project Gutenberg Europe. Since its very beginnings, DP Europe has been a multilingual website, with its main pages translated into several European languages by volunteer translators. In April 2004, DP Europe was available in 12 languages. The long-term goal is 60 languages and 60 linguistic teams representing all the European languages. When it gets up to speed, DP Europe will provide eBooks for several national and/or linguistic digital libraries, for example Projet Gutenberg France for France. The goal is for every country to have its own digital library (according to the country copyright limitations), within a continental network (for France, the European network) and a global network (for the whole planet).

A few lines now on Project Rastko, which had the boldness to launch such a difficult and exciting project for Europe, and catalysed volunteers’ energy in both Eastern and Western Europe (and anywhere else: as the internet has no boundaries, there is no need to live in Europe to register). Founded in 1997, Project Rastko is a non-governmental cultural and educational project. One of its goals is the online publishing of Serbian culture. It is part of the Balkans Cultural Network Initiative, a regional cultural network for the Balkan peninsula in south-eastern Europe.

In May 2005, Distributed Proofreaders Europe finished processing its 100th eBook. In June 2005 Project Gutenberg Europe was launched with these first 100 eBooks. PG Europe operates under “life +50” copyright laws. On August 3, 2005, 137 books were complete (processed through the site and posted to Project Gutenberg Europe), 418 books were in progress (processed through the site but not yet posted, because currently going through their final proofreading and assembly), and 125 books were being proofread (currently being processed). DP Europe supports Unicode to be able to proofread eBooks in numerous languages. Unicode is an encoding system created in 1991 that gives a unique number for every character in any language.

From the Past to the Future

10 books online in August 1989; 100 books in January 1994; 1,000 books in August 1997; 2,000 books in May 1999; 3,000 books in December 2000; 4,000 books in October 2001; 5,000 books in April 2002; 10,000 books in October 2003; 15,000 books in January 2005; and 1 million books planned for 2015.

But Project Gutenberg’s results are not only measured in numbers, which can’t compete yet with the number of print books in the public domain. The results also include the major influence that the project has had. As the oldest producer of free eBooks on the internet, Project Gutenberg has inspired many other digital libraries, for example Projekt Gutenberg-DE for classic German literature and Projekt Runeberg for classic Nordic (Scandinavian) literature, to name only two.

Project Gutenberg keeps its administrative and financial structure to the bare minimum. Its motto fits into three words: “Less is more“. The minimal rules give much space to volunteers and to new ideas. The goal is to ensure its independence from loans and other funding and from ephemeral cultural priorities, to avoid pressure from politicians or economic interests. The aim is also to ensure respect for the volunteers, who can be confident their work will be used not just for decades but for centuries. Volunteers can network through mailing lists and weekly or monthly newsletters. Donations are used to buy equipment and supplies, mostly computers and scanners. Founded in 2000, the PGLAF (Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation) has only three part-time employees.

More generally, Michael should be given more credit as the real inventor of the eBook. If we consider the eBook in its etymological sense, that is to say a book that has been digitized to be distributed as an electronic file, it is now 34 years old and was born with Project Gutenberg in July 1971. This is a much more comforting paternity than the various commercial launchings in proprietary formats that peppered the early 2000s. There is no reason for the term “eBook” to be the monopoly of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Gemstar and others. The non-commercial eBook is a full eBook, and not a “poor” version, just as non-commercial ePublishing is a fully-fledged way of publishing, and as valuable as commercial ePublishing. Project Gutenberg eTexts are now called eBooks, to use the recent terminology in the field.

In July 1971, sending a 5K file to 100 people would have crashed the network of the time. In November 2002, Project Gutenberg could post the 75 files of the Human Genome Project, with files of dozens or hundreds of megabytes, shortly after its initial release in February 2001, because it was public domain. In 2004, a computer hard disk costing US$140 could potentially hold the entire Library of Congress. And we probably are only a few years away from a storage disk capable of holding all the print media of our planet.

What about documents other than text?

In September 2003, Project Gutenberg launched Project Gutenberg Audio eBooks. As of 2005, there are 391 computer-generated audio books and a few human-read audio books. The number of human-read eBooks should greatly increase over the next few years. As for computer-generated eBooks, it seems they won’t be stored in a specific section any more, but “converted” when requested from the existing electronic files in the main collections. Voice-activated requests will be possible, as a useful tool for visually impaired readers.

Launched at the same time, The Sheet Music Subproject is dedicated to digitized music sheet. It also contains a few music recordings. Some still pictures and moving pictures are also available. These new collections should take off in the future.

But digitizing books remains the priority, and there is a big demand, as confirmed by the tens of thousands of eBooks that are downloaded every day. For example, on July 31, 2005, there were 37,532 downloads for the day, 243,808 downloads for the week (July 24-31), and 1,154,765 downloads for the month. This only for transfers from ibiblio.org (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), the main eBook distribution site (which also hosts the website). The Internet Archive is the backup distribution site and provides unlimited disk space for storage and processing. Project Gutenberg has 44 mirror sites in many countries and is looking for new ones. It also encourages the use of P2P for sharing its eBooks. The “Top 100” lists the top 100 eBooks and the top 100 authors for the previous day, the last 7 days and the last 30 days.

Project Gutenberg eBooks can also help bridge the “digital divide.” They can be read on a computer or a secondhand PDA costing just a few dollars. Solar-powered PDAs offer a good solution in remote regions and developing countries.

eBooks are also copied on CDs and DVDs. Blank CDs and DVDs cost next to nothing, as does their burning on a CD or DVD writer. Project Gutenberg sends a free CD or DVD to anyone who asks for it, and people are encouraged to make copies for a friend, a library or a school. Released in August 2003, the “Best of Gutenberg” CD contains over 600 eBooks. Released in December 2003, the first Project Gutenberg DVD contains 9,400 eBooks. A new DVD is in preparation. The current prototype contains nearly 26,000 eBooks (with some titles in different versions and formats), and is about 3/4 full.

By the time the collections hit one million eBooks in 2015 or before, it is hoped machine translation software will be able to convert them from one to another of 100 languages. In ten years from now, it is possible that machine translation will be judged 99% satisfactory (research is very active on that front, but there is still a lot to do), allowing for the reading of literary classics in a choice of many languages. In 2004, Project Gutenberg was in touch with a European project studying how to combine translation software and human translators, somewhat as OCR software is now combined with the work of proofreaders.

34 years after the beginnings of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart describes himself as a workaholic who devotes his entire life to his project, because he thinks eBooks will become the “killer ap(plication)” of the computer revolution. He considers himself a pragmatic and farsighted altruist. For years he was regarded as a nut but now he is respected. He wants to change the world through freely-available eBooks that can be used and copied endlessly. Reading and culture for everyone at minimal cost. Project Gutenberg’s mission can be stated in eight words: “To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks,” by everybody, and by every possible means. While implementing new ideas, new methods and new software.

Let us give the last word to Michael, whom I asked in August 1998: “What is your best experience with the internet?” His answer was: “The notes I get that tell me people appreciate that I have spent my life putting books, etc., on the internet. Some are quite touching, and can make my whole day.” Seven years later, he confirms that his answer would still be the same.


The chronology has been updated until December 2006.

  • 2010 (estimation): Automatic conversion in numerous formats.
  • 2015 (estimation): 1,000,000 eBooks in Project Gutenberg.
  • 2015 (estimation): Machine translation in 100 languages.


With many thanks to Russon Wooldridge, who kindly edited this long article.

Founded in May 2000 by Russon Wooldridge, a professor in the Department of French Studies, University of Toronto, Canada, the NEF (Net des études françaises / Net of French Studies) is a French-speaking network of scholars and librarians who develop free publishing structures on the internet: critical tools and reflections on various aspects of French studies; repository of texts and textual databases; study and critical analysis of the web as a medium. Some articles, courses and studies are also available in English.Marie Lebert is a member of the NEF, and an independent researcher, writer and editor. She is keenly interested in how new technology has changed publishing, other media and languages. She campaigns for free dissemination of knowledge, as far as possible, and for participating in new publishing structures that fully use the potential of the internet. She is a volunteer for a number of projects, including this article.

Dossiers du NEF: Home Page
NEF: Home Page

© 2005, 2006 Marie Lebert for the French version and the English version. With the help of Russon Wooldridge, who edited the English version. All Rights Reserved.Marie Lebert has kindly given her permission for this document to be used in full on PG-New.org.

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