Thursday, October 20, 2011

Virtual Libraries – Part 1

Like most people who spend a lot of time on-line, I have strong opinions about what I find.  Vicious gossip sites and forums for unfounded political attacks? Bad. Information on recycling days? Good. Restaurant reviews for the new Thai place up the street? Excellent. Free access to thousands of books in the public domain? Incredible.

While I’ve known about Project Gutenberg for a while, I’ve spent very little time on the site until recently.  Now just one of an ever-growing number of sites that serve as a portal to works in the public domain, Project Gutenberg was one of the first. Founded in 1971 by Michael Hart, then a student at the University of Illinois, the site now offers 36,000 free downloadable ebooks.  

Hart came up with the idea of making works in the public domain available on a wide-scale basis and started by entering the text of the Declaration of Independence on the University’s mainframe computer. (To read more about Hart, who died recently, see the New York Times obituary or the one on the Project Gutenberg site.) For the next 17 years Hart worked largely on his own, typing in the text from more than 300 books. At that point, he started recruiting volunteers to add to the Project’s holdings. Today, most of the books on Project Gutenberg are scanned from printed copies and proofread by volunteers. Interested in helping? Go here to learn more. 

Johann Gutenberg (c.1398-1468), the namesake of Project Gutenberg,
known as the inventor of movable type, a development that changed the
history of publishing forever. 

You can view a copy of the Gutenberg bible, the book most famously associated with Johann Gutenberg, at this site maintained by the British Library. 

What’s it like to browse through a digital library? It’s less colorful and requires a little more patience than strolling through the stacks at your local bricks-and-mortar library or bookstore. And it’s probably best-suited to those with an interest in older works (dating back about 100 years*)-- but some booklovers will find it well worthwhile. Look up Lewis Carroll, for example, and you’ll find not only Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in English, French and German, but some lesser-known works by Carroll such as the Hunting of the Snark, a nonsense poem (subtitled An Agony in Eight Fits) that borrows some of the language that first appeared in The Jabberwocky.

Among those titles most recently added to the Project Gutenberg collection are:

Judith Shakespeare, Her Love Affairs and other Adventures by William Black (published circa 1890), a fictionalized biography of William Shakespeare’s daughter, which begins,

“It was a fair, clear, and shining morning, in the sweet May-time of the
year, when a young English damsel went forth from the town of
Stratford-upon-Avon to walk in the fields. As she passed along by the
Guild Chapel and the Grammar School, this one and the other that met her
gave her a kindly greeting; for nearly every one knew her, and she was a
favorite; and she returned those salutations with a frankness which
betokened rather the self-possession of a young woman than the timidity
of a girl. Indeed, she was no longer in the first sensitive dawn of

From Judith Shakespeare, Her Loves and Other Adventures. Based on the (perhaps not completely reliable) information that is available about Judith's life, she was not destined for a happy ending, outliving both her philandering husband and her children.

Those with an interest in how India was viewed by a Dubliner when Great Britain still ruled the country, might want to try Life in an Indian Outpost by Gordon Casserly (the author of The Jungle Girl, also available on Project Gutenberg), published circa 1914. The book reads like an adventure story (though one imagines it may well reflect an uncomfortable imperialist view) and begins,

“Against the blue sky to the north lay a dark blur that, as our troop
train ran on through the level plains of Eastern Bengal, rose ever
higher and took shape--the distant line of the Himalayas.

Unfortunately, the book’s 30-some illustrations are not included, but the list of captions is and we are left to imagine the depictions of  the author’s “Bachelor Establishment” and “A kneeling elephant.”

Most of the books on Project Gutenberg are published in English and U.S. copyright laws apply. A note on the site reminds users:
 Our ebooks are free in the United States because their copyright has expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries. Readers outside of the United States must check the copyright laws of their countries before downloading or redistributing our ebooks.

For more general information on Project Gutenberg, visit their FAQ page

For links to other family-friendly sites (including at least one that features children’s fiction from around the world) where you can access free books on-line, visit this page from About.Com

 * The time at which a work enters the public domain varies widely, depending on what year the work was published, where it was published, and the date of the author’s death, among many other considerations. This site at Cornell University offers more detailed information.

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