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Project Gutenberg (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Last night I wandered my home in search of a novel by Henry James. I keep thousands of books in my home because often late at night I'll get the urge to read a particular book or author. But my shelves held no books by James. Long ago I'd declared them dull and tossed them out. But now, at midnight, I needed to try again. How to satisfy this urge? {modem sound} I turned to the internet and browsed Project Gutenberg.

This on-line archive of thousands of books had, for free, all of the Henry James my heart desired. I learned just yesterday that Project Gutenberg began in my home town. Michael Hart began it at the University of Illinois in 1971.

One day Hart found his computer account credited with one hundred million dollars worth of computer time. Now, most of us would just report this error, but Hart thought differently. He wanted to repay that gift. An idea struck him later that day as he shopped for groceries.

As they bagged his groceries they tossed in a copy of the Declaration of Independence; it was part of the growing mania for American's bicentennial. Hart realized that if he typed this into his computer and sent it to everyone, copies of it would exists everywhere and forever. Hart reasoned that he'd have repaid his one hundred million credit when there existed one hundred million computers all storing his typed in Declaration of Independence.

So, he set down and began typing "In the course of human events ...." after finishing the last word he sent it to everyone with e-mail - now in 1971 this was only a couple of hundred, but still this first piece of junk mail upset everyone. To avoid this in the future, Hart just posted it, that is put it on a computer where others could retrieve it when they liked. What Hart realized was that the major impact of computers wasn't in calculating, but in distributing. This started Hart on his quest to build an electronic library. He typed in the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, Shakespeare's plays - setting for himself a goal of ten thousand books on-line by 2001.

None of this work was funded; Hart did it all himself until 1988 when the internet reached a quarter million users and his Project Gutenberg attracted others. Today about one thousand volunteers type, scan, and proofread about 150 new books a month.

There are now some three thousand books on-line; a bit short of his goal of ten thousand, but note that some 100 million people can now access his books. And perhaps a trillion copies now sit on computers all around the world. This is Michael Hart's gift to the world.

So from me, at least, thank you Mr. Hart for the gift of Henry James at midnight.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises