Monday, June 19, 2006

Project Gutenberg: Interview with Michael Hart

I first became aware of Project Gutenberg back in 1989. I was working with a brilliant undergraduate student who volunteered his spare time keying-in classic books:

Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitise, archive, and distribute cultural works, primarily the full texts of public domain books. Founded in 1971, it is the oldest digital library in the world, and currently offers 17,000 freely downloadable e-texts.

When I came across this interview at Open and Shut? with Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart it brought back a ton of fond memories. Much of what I believe today about copyright, volunteerism, and the power of networked people was formed back in those days. I was amazed at what was happening then, and I‘m even more amazed today. When I get a little passionate about this sort of stuff you‘ll have to forgive me. I‘ve been at this a long time, and I am a tad less than patient with people who to this day are so quick to say, “That‘ll never work!”

Anway, as an added bit of nostalgia I did a search on my former student and came up with a post he did back in 1992 to the Project Gutenberg newsletter. We‘d written this application that allowed people to retrieve information through an email query. It was similar to the old listserv software that ran on BITNET. At the time there was nothing quite like it on the Unix side of the house, and we put it to all sorts of interesting uses (besides the reason we wrote it in the first place). Its most visible use was by the Whitehouse who used it to archive and distribute the President‘s speeches in the early 90s. One of the fun things we used it for was to serve-up Project Gutenberg public domain e-texts:

To retrieve a file via e-mail, first send the following line by itself to [log in to unmask]

send gutenberg catalog

This will instruct you how to send further requests, and will
list the available files. For example, to retrieve Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

send gutenberg alice

Project Gutenberg today is hosted by the fine folks over at the University of North Carolina who bring us ibiblio, “the public‘s library and digital archive”.

Those were interesting days. I‘m involved in a project today that looks like it is going to be just as enjoyable. I‘ll talk about that later. Suffice it to say that the fun will begin in July.

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