On Saturday, February 27, Paul Turner and I made our way to Roanoke (Indiana) to listen to Michael Hart tell stories about electronic texts and Project Gutenberg. This posting describes our experience.
Roanoke and the library
To celebrate its 100th birthday, the Roanoke Public Library invited Michael Hart of Project Gutenberg fame to share his experience regarding electronic texts in a presentation called “Books & eBooks: Past, Present & Future Libraries”. The presentation was scheduled to start around 3 o’clock, but Paul Turner and I got there more than an hour early. We wanted to have time to visit the Library before it closed at 2 o’clock. The town of Roanoke (Indiana) — a bit south west of Fort Wayne — was tiny by just about anybody’s standard. It sported a single blinking red light, a grade school, a few churches, one block of shops, and a couple of eating establishments. According to the man in the bar, the town got started because of the locks that had been built around town.
The Library was pretty small too, but it bursted with pride. About 1,800 square feet in size, it was overflowing with books and videos. There were a couple of comfy chairs for adults, a small table, a set of four computers to do Internet things, and at least a few clocks the wall. They were very proud of the fact that they had become an Evergreen library as a part Evergreen Indiana initiative. “Now is is possible to see what is owned in other, nearby libraries, and borrow things from them as well,” said the Library’s Board Director.
The presentation itself was not held in the Library but in a nearby church. About fifty (50) people attended. We sat in the pews and contemplated the symbolism of the stained glass windows and wondered how the various hardware placed around the alter was going to be incorporated into the presentation.
Full of smiles and joviality, Michael Hart appeared in a tailless tuxedo, cumber bun, and top hat. “I am now going to pull a library out of my hat,” he proclaimed, and proceeded to withdraw a memory chip. “This chip contains 10’s of thousands of books, and now I’m going to pull a million books out of my pocket,” and he proceed to display a USB drive. Before the year 2020 he sees us capable of carrying around a billion books on some sort of portable device. Such was the essence of his presentation — computer technology enables the distribution and acquisition of “books” in ways never before possible. Through this technology he wants to change the world. “I consider myself to be like Johnny Appleseed, and I’m spreading the word,” at which time I raised my hand and told him Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) was buried just up the road in Fort Wayne.
Mr. Hart displayed and described a lot of antique hardware. A hard drive that must have weighed fifty (50) pounds. Calculators. Portable computers. Etc. He illustrated how storage mediums were getting smaller and smaller while being able to save more and more data. He was interested in the packaging of data and displayed a memory chip a person can buy from Walmart containing “all of the hit songs from the 50’s and 60’s”. (I wonder how the copyright issues around that one had been addressed.) “The same thing,” he said, “could be done for books but there is something wrong with the economics and the publishing industry.”
He outlined how Project Gutenberg works. First a book is identified as a possible candidate for the collection. Second, the legalities of the making the book available are explored. Next, a suitable edition of the book is located. Fourth, the book’s content is transcribed or scanned. Finally, 100’s of people proof-read the result and ultimately make it available. Hart advocated getting the book out sooner rather than later. “It does not have to be perfect, and we can always the fix errors later.”
He described how the first Project Gutenberg item came into existence. In a very round-about and haphazard way, he enrolled in college. Early on he gravitated towards the computer room because it was air conditioned. Through observation he learned how to use the computer, and to do his part in making the expense of the computer worthwhile, he typed out the United States Declaration of the Independence on July 4th, 1971.
“Typing the books is fun,” he said. “It provides a means for reading in ways you had never read them before. It is much more rewarding than scanning.” As a person who recently learned how to bind books and as a person who enjoys writing in books, I asked Mr. Hart to compare & contrast ebooks, electronic texts, and codexes. “The things Project Gutenberg creates are electronic texts, not ebooks. They are small, portable, easily copyable, and readable by any device. If you can’t read a plain text document on your computer, then you have much bigger problems. Moreover, there is an enormous cost-benefit compared to printed books. Electronic texts are cheap.” Unfortunately, he never really answered the question. Maybe I should have phrased it differently and asked him, the way Paul did, to compare the experience of reading physical books and electronic texts. “I don’t care if it looks like a book. Electronic texts allow me to do more reading.”
“Two people invented open source. Me and Richard Stallman,” he said. Well, I don’t think this is exactly true. Rather, Richard Stahlman invented the concept of GNU software, and Michael Hart may have invented the concept of open access publishing. But the subtle differences between open source software and open access publishing are lost on most people. In both cases the content is “free”. I guess I’m too close to the situation. I too see open source software distribution and open access publishing having more things in common than differences.
“I knew Project Gutenberg was going to be success when I was talking on the telephone with a representative of the Common Knowledge project and heard a loud crash on the other end of the line. It turns out the representative’s son and friends had broken an annorandak chair while clamoring to read an electronic text.” In any case, he was fanatically passionate about giving away electronic texts. He sited the World eBook Fair, and came to the presentation with plenty of CD’s for distribution.
In the end I had my picture taken with Mr. Hart. We then all retired to the basement for punch and cake where we sang Happy Birthday to Michael. Two birthdays celebrated at the same time.
Many people are drawn to the library profession as a matter of principle. Service to others. Academic freedom. Preservation of the historical record. I must admit that I am very much the same way. I was drawn to librarianship for two reasons. First, as a person with a BA in philosophy, I saw libraries as a places full of ideas, literally. Second, I saw the profession as a growth industry because computers could be used to disseminate the content of books. In many ways my gut feelings were accurate, but at the same time they were misguided because much of librarianship surrounds workflows, processes that are only a couple of steps away from factory work, and the curation of physical items. To me, just like Mr. Hart, the physical item is not as important as what it manifests. It is not about the book. Rather, it is what is inside the book. Us librarians have tied our identities to the physical book in such a way to be limiting. We have pegged ourselves, portrayed a short-sighted vision, and consequently painted ourselves into a corner. It the carpenter a hammer expert? Is the surgeon a scalpel technician? No, they are builders and healers, respectively. Why must librarianship be identified with books?
I have benefited from Mr. Hart’s work. My Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts contains many Project Gutenberg texts. Unlike the books from the Internet Archive, the texts are much more amenable to digital humanities computing techniques because they have been transcribed by humans and not scanned by computers. At the same time, the Project Gutenberg texts are not formatted as well for printing or screen display as PDF versions of the same. This is why the use of electronic texts and ebooks is not an either/or situation but rather a both/and, especially when it comes to analysis. Read a well-printed book. Identify item of interest. Locate item in electronic version of book. Do analysis. Return to printed book. The process could work just as well the other way around. Ask a question of the electronic text. Get one or more answers. Examine them in the context of the printed word. Both/and, not either/or.
The company was great, and the presentation was inspiring. I applaud Michael Hart for his vision and seemingly undying enthusiasm. His talk made me feel like I really am on the right track, but change takes time. The free distribution of data and information — whether the meaning of free be denoted as liberty or gratis — is the right thing to do for society in general. We all benefit, and therefore the individual benefits as well. The political “realities” of the situation are more like choices and not Platonic truths. They represent immediate objectives as opposed to long-term strategic goals. I guess this is what you get when you mix the corporeal and ideal natures of humanity.
Who would have known that a trip to Roanoke would turn out to be a reflection of what it means to be human.