Monday, September 26, 2011

Remembering Project Gutenberg's Michael Hart (1947-2011)

Earlier this September, the world focused on the 10-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Not surprising, for the events on 11th September of 2001 was a world-changing event.

I thought what seems to have slipped the world's attention was the passing of Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg.

Hart's project might not be world-changing on the scale of 9-11, but it certainly spanned the World Wide Web.

Project Gutenberg is, without a doubt for me, the precursor of ebooks.

Hart was best known for his 1971 invention of electronic books, or eBooks. He founded Project Gutenberg, which is recognized as one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects. He often told this story of how he had the idea for eBooks. He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization and distribution of literature was to be Hart's life's work, spanning over 40 years.
~ Dr. Gregory B. Newby, Obituary for Michael Stern Hart.

I only learned about Project Gutenberg after I entered the library profession in 1996. That was also the year I had any real practical experience with the World Wide Web and the Internet. I also did not realise -- until much, much later -- that Project Gutenberg was started in 1971 (I'm almost as old as it was).

Project Gutenberg, at that time, it was a no-frills website. It still is, by today's standards.

Then, and like now, you basically searched for titles and downloaded digital texts for free. Almost all 'books' in Project Gutenberg were texts from public domain.

However, it was not an online bookstore the way Amazon was. In terms of popular appeal, the public domain texts could never compare.

Still, I found Project Gutenberg impressive. I still do. It may seem a simple idea: converting texts from printed book form to digital files, then making the digital works available to the world. For free.

But for a 'simple idea' to be sustained since 1971, that alone has to impress.

The reading experience
Michael Hart's project didn't revolutionise the reading experience, not in the way Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad did.

Of course, I don't think he sought to do that.

I thought Project Gutenberg had two issues that prevented it from becoming truly world-changing. One, the reading experience wasn't 'wow'. Reading large volume of texts on desktop or laptop computer screens was impractical for most. It was more of 'reading off a computer' rather 'reading an ebook', not to mention the print resolution and several well-discussed issues.

Two, the content wasn't 'wow' either. Not when the rage was Tom Clancy and John Grisham etc.

I have an impression that when the world's reading experience was transformed with the appearance of Kindle and iPad (along with their respective supply of eBooks with modern and popular appeal), Project Gutenberg fell even more out of the public eye. Relatively speaking.

In the 90s, when the World Wide Web was a nebulous thing and librarians met it with calls of doom and gloom, I think librarians saw Project Gutenberg as a positive thing, but not a remedy.

Project Gutenberg was not a search engine. It wasn't an online reference (come to think of it: if it were, it would be seen as yet another threat!)

Renewed relevance?
I think with eReading devices becoming more accessible and affordable, an initiative like Project Gutenberg's Mission Statement may be well poised to take on the future:
The mission of Project Gutenberg is simple: To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks.

This mission is, as much as possible, to encourage all those who are interested in making eBooks and helping to give them away.

Project Gutenberg has moved with the times. They have backed up their intent (of encouraging eBook distribution) by providing formats like EPUB and for Kindle.

And who knows? Perhaps a successful contemporary author, whose works have current mass appeal, may bequeath his works to Project Gutenberg. Or a philanthropist who decides to acquire the rights of popular works and make them available through the Project.

Or some one may leverage on Project Gutenberg's collection, add a new twist to its eBooks content or reading experience, and make it available as an Apple or Android app. Which might transform the world's reading experience.

Well, all are just conjectures.

Most of us did not see 9-11 coming. On a more positive note, neither did we foresee the Kindle or iPad. For that matter, did we anticipate a relatively simple idea like Project Gutenberg?

So who knows?

Thank you, Michael Hart.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teaching racial harmony

The train doors opened.

An old man stepped in. I could tell he was quite elderly: his wrinkled skin; his unsure footing as the train moved off.

A much younger man noticed him too. The young man got up from his seat. The younger person's body language and eye contact was enough to signal his intent to the elder.

The old man shuffled towards the vacated seat. "Thank you, thank you," he said.

A few seats away, a young girl took it all in, glancing between the two.

Singapore MRT Cabin
Originally uploaded by xcode

The old man and young person were of two different races.


[Note: The above happened just the way I saw it. I was inspired to recount the above after reading Lucian's post. No where as elegant as Lucian's though.]