The ebook at 50 — is the dream of a free, universal library fading?

From The Financial Times:

Fifty years ago, on July 4 1971, Michael S Hart typed the text of “The Declaration of Independence” into a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. He circulated a note to the roughly 100 users in that pre-internet age, explaining the document was free to share. And with that, the world’s first ebook was born. It would be downloaded by six users.

Hart, who died in September 2011 at the age of 64, spent 40 years of his life building the world’s first digital library, Project Gutenberg. He stubbornly argued against restrictive access and copyright practices, which went against his grand vision: “To bring as many books to as many people as possible.”

His vision has not wholly succeeded. Over the past two decades, the cut-throat commercialism of ebooks has become a problem for readers and libraries. In 2019, the American Library Association criticised Amazon, which has a huge slice of the ebooks market, for refusing to make its ebooks available to libraries “for lending at any price or any terms” and spoke against the delayed release of ebooks by other publishers to library markets.

But in the early 2000s, I stumbled across Hart’s Project Gutenberg as a paralegal researcher and then as a journalist looking for archives and databases online. It was a treasure house. Delhi and Kolkata were reader-friendly cities, with decent bookshops and historical archives, but public libraries were — and are — still scarce.

Readers who grew up in countries without extensive library networks will know how it feels to be handed the keys to this treasure trove of books that you could download and store for yourself, forever. I find messages in a Hotmail archive from 2003 between me and other bookish friends in Coimbatore and Mumbai. We were like astronauts, cast into space and dazzled by a universe of delights. A friend wrote to me after her first foray into Project Gutenberg’s catalogue, “More books than you can imagine! We are *rich*!”

Hart’s online library had a slow start — disk space in the 1970s and early 1980s was so limited that storing a complete book was almost impossible — but by May 1999, Project Gutenberg had a collection of 2,000 books. Five years later, that had grown to 10,000 public domain works online, including The King James Bible and Alice in Wonderland.

Today, the main Project Gutenberg site hosts more than 60,000 free books in languages from English to Finnish. But perhaps Hart’s greatest achievement was that Gutenberg inspired others to found their own free digital libraries, from the mammoth Internet Archive to the World Digital Library.

In much of the public imagination, ebooks are associated with Amazon, which pioneered the commercial sale of ebooks and Kindles. With Amazon, Kobo and the world’s biggest publishers all broadening their ebook readers and catalogues over the past 10 years, the average reader’s comfort with digital books has grown — despite obstacles such as screen fatigue or the delayed availability of many commercially successful books in digital formats for libraries. Even so, a recent industry report by Mordor Intelligence valued the global ebook market at $18bn in 2020.

. . . .

The pandemic has forced a massive change in reading habits, perhaps temporary but still significant. OverDrive, a US company that works with libraries as a digital distributor of ebooks and audiobooks, released data this January showing a global spike in digital borrowing by readers across global public library systems. Notably, children’s books and young adult fiction are being more widely read as ebooks or digital downloads as the pandemic kept families indoors

Link to the rest at The Financial Times (if you have problems with a paywall, you may want to try a browser you haven’t ever used to access the FT)

And here’s a link to Project Gutenberg (much friendlier destination than the FT)

4 thoughts on “The ebook at 50 — is the dream of a free, universal library fading?”

  1. The old, worn lament that books are not “free.” If writers are not paid, there would be very few books.

    Writers can be paid by selling their books on the market – or they can be paid by government subsidy. Writers paid by the government write only what the government wants written.

    I will excuse the OP for not knowing that the KJV Bible is under copyright – and will be so in perpetuity (or as long as British copyright law has any force). The Crown is quite lenient in allowing its reproduction – but they could, in theory, put a halt to that at any time.

    • You haven’t heard of it? It’s a company of wise fools. They weigh all things to a nicety in the scales of their malice. But the only measure that they know is desire, desire for power; and so they judge all hearts.

  2. Of course that dream is fading. It’s doomed.

    The dream expects an institution anchored in the past to pass into the future with one factor changed. It’s free. That won’t happen. Lots of other things will change, merge together, and be joined by completely new things.

    We have watched it all happen over the last 25 years. The dream has taken a different course. It has opened up incredible access to written, video, and audio media. It’s far beyond what anyone can comprehend or catalog. And free? The free stuff is beyond calculation.

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