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Project Gutenberg on quest to digitize 1 billion books

August 12, 2010 |  5:11 am

Johannes-gutenbergJohannes Gutenberg may have invented modern printing, but Michael Hart invented the e-book. At least that's what Hart's e-mail signature says.

Indeed, Hart is considered by many in technology and literary circles to be the creator of the electronic book. As founder of the Gutenberg Project, named for the 15th century printer credited with inventing movable type, Hart began transcribing and scanning books on July 4, 1971 -- "technically July 5," Hart corrected himself in an e-mail; "it was all night."

For Gutenberg the man, society has had six centuries to determine his role in publishing.

Things aren't as clear cut in e-books. In the '70s, the Palo Alto Research Center, owned by Xerox, was also working on digitizing literature with its Dynabook project.

But Project Gutenberg persists as a leader in the field, offering more than 33,000 out-of-copyright books as free downloads. They can be read on a computer, loaded onto a Kindle, or found on Apple's iBookstore for the iPad. (Apple approached Project Gutenberg directly for access to its catalog, and inquired about page design and errors in the text, Hart said.)

Hart is excited about what's to come. Those efforts include ramping up literary translations and -- what else? -- scanning more books.

The circumstances of The Times' interview with Hart was somewhat unusual. He declined a phone call because he and his colleagues were at a conference when we talked a few months ago -- "not that I do phone interviews," he added.

What do you expect from a self-proclaimed e-book inventor who runs a unique, donation-driven organization?

When asked to explain why he started Project Gutenberg, Hart outlined in his e-mail the proper search terms for finding that information. That led to a meandering history of the organization, hosted on a blog that's an offshoot of Project Gutenberg.

It says Hart -- as he documented in a prior e-mail interview, the page notes -- credits the founding to a local grocery store. He was inspired by the Declaration of Independence printed on a leaflet that was included with his food. From there he made the jump to digitizing his library's public domain books.

Alice-in-wonderland Now Project Gutenberg has found a serious competitor in Google, which quickly took hold of the world's largest e-book library. A lot has changed, right?

"Surprisingly, not that much," Hart wrote. "More scanning, less typing."

Hart isn't jockeying with Google to procure the most profits from scanning books, nor is he trying to negotiate his hand for access to orphan works as Google has. (The Internet giant was supposed to launch an e-bookstore early this summer called Google Editions that has yet to see the light of day, according to the Wall Street Journal.) Project Gutenberg continues to digitize thousands of books a year, Hart said.

Hart's grand plan is centered around one number: 1 billion. He scratched his math, based on various premises, down into an e-mail. His vision for a larger digital reading ecosystem includes all e-books, whether from his own organization or others or from for-profit ventures including Google's.

There's the total pot of public-domain books, which Hart estimates is 25 million. If all the scanners rack up at least 10 million of those and then translate them into 100 languages, there you have a billion e-books.

Or, as Hart wrote exuberantly in his e-mail: "ONE BILLION eBOOKS!!!!!!!"

"This WILL happen," he concluded. "The question is when."

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

Photo, top: Johannes Gutenberg. Credit: International Portrait Gallery. Photo, bottom: Project Gutenberg digitized "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," available on Apple's iBookstore. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times

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