Magazine article UNESCO Courier

2,000 World Classics on Line

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

2,000 World Classics on Line

Article excerpt

Relying on the sole efforts of volunteers, Project Gutenberg has been launching the world's literary heritage into cyberspace for nearly 30 years while conducting a crusade against copyright restrictions

When Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, was given a free Internet account, he spent an hour pondering the potential of the gift, then typed in the American Declaration of Independence and sent it to everyone on the networks. Project Gutenberg had just been born.

That was back in 1971, when only 23 computers in the U.S. were online and computer memories were small. Believing that the greatest value created by computers would be the storage and retrieval of library materials, Hart continued his project with the U.S. Constitution, the books of the Bible and Shakespeare's plays. As computer power increased, he launched into book-length manuscripts, beginning with a popular classic, Alice in Wonderland. Today, there are 160 million Internet accounts globally and Michael Hart's free cyber-library just posted its 2,000th title: Cervantes' Don Quixote, in Spanish. While the majority of titles are in English, the library also comprises a handful in French, Italian and Latin.

Idealistic and utilitarian

Although he claims he's never read a computer manual, Hart, the son of a professor specializing in Shakespeare and a mathematician, is a child of the information age, a recluse who prefers to communicate via e-mail from his home in Urbana, Illinois. "I started the project because I am idealistic and utilitarian," says Hart, a self-described blue-collar rebel.

"Michael Hart should be as famous as Bill Gates," asserts Chicago Tribune computer columnist Jim Coates. But Hart has never truly reaped the material reward from being the first to post texts on the net. Project Gutenberg is a non-profit enterprise, entirely funded through donations. Its first grant came from Apple, and others followed from such outfits as Hewlett Packard, IBM and Microsoft, whether in the form of super scanners or dollars.

"We don't have a budget of any kind," asserts Hart flatly. The project, which averages 36 new books a year, relies on some 1,000 volunteers. Nor is there an editorial committee. Volunteers are encouraged to choose books they'd like to add to the library, as long as they fall into the public domain, which restricts the selection to pre-1923 works. …

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