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

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(Read caption) 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.

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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 Yet that was when Project Gutenberg founder Michael Stern Hart – who died on Sept. 6 – started typing historical documents into a computer network.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members in the network downloaded the Declaration, which reinforced Hart’s belief that there was a demand for important historical documents being available over a computer.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.


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