The ebook at 50, is the dream of a free and universal library fading?
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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 some 100 users in this pre-Internet era, explaining that 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 opposed restrictive access and copyright practices, which ran counter to his grand vision: “Bring as many books to as many people as possible”.
His vision was not entirely successful. Over the past two decades, the relentless commercialism of eBooks has become a problem for readers and libraries. In 2019, the American Library Association criticized Amazon, which has a huge share of the e-book market, for refusing to make its e-books available to libraries “for loan at any price or at no. any conditions “and spoke out against the delayed release of eBooks by other publishers. at library markets.
But in the early 2000s, I came across Hart’s Gutenberg Project as a paralegal researcher and then as a journalist researching archives and online databases. It was a treasure house. Delhi and Kolkata were friendly cities, with decent bookstores and historical archives, but public libraries were – and are – still scarce.
Readers who grew up in countries without extensive library networks will know what it feels like to be handed the keys to this treasure trove of books that you can download and store for yourself, forever. I find messages in a 2003 Hotmail archive between myself and other bookish friends in Coimbatore and Mumbai. We were like astronauts, thrown into space and dazzled by a universe of delights. A friend wrote to me after her first foray into the Project Gutenberg catalog: “More books than you can imagine!” We are rich*!”
Hart’s online library got off to a slow start – disk space in the 1970s and early 1980s was so limited that it was nearly impossible to store an entire book – but by May 1999 Project Gutenberg had a collection of 2,000 books. Five years later, that number had grown to 10,000 public domain works online, including The King James Bible and Alice in Wonderland.
Today, Project Gutenberg’s main site hosts more than 60,000 free books in languages ââranging from English to Finnish. But perhaps Hart’s greatest achievement was that Gutenberg inspired others to found their own free digital libraries, from gigantic Internet archives to the World Digital Library.
In much of the public imagination, eBooks are associated with Amazon, which pioneered the commercial sale of eBooks and Kindle. With Amazon, Kobo, and the world’s largest publishers all expanding their e-book readers and catalogs over the past 10 years, the average reader’s convenience with e-books has increased, despite obstacles such as screen fatigue or the delayed availability of many commercially successful books in digital formats. for libraries. Despite this, a recent industry report from Mordor Intelligence valued the global eBook market at $ 18 billion in 2020.
The pandemic has forced a massive change in reading habits, perhaps temporary but still significant. OverDrive, a U.S. company that works with libraries as a digital distributor of eBooks and audiobooks, released data in January showing a global increase in digital borrowing by readers from global public library systems. Notably, children’s books and young adult fiction are more widely read as e-books or digital downloads, as the pandemic has kept families inside.
To mark this anniversary year, I revisited Hart’s writings and his entertaining rants (he disliked âpetty bourgeois argumentâ, âplaintiffs,â most copyright laws, Disney and the American school system) on his blog. He was passionate about free eBooks, insisting that they had value in themselves.
Hart felt that readers who liked the look and feel of paper books favored form over content. âWhat I appreciate most,â he wrote, âare the hearts and minds of writers who have spent much of their lives telling me what’s in them, to me. talk about their own perceptions and the thoughts and feelings within them. “
Consumer eBooks are still young, still evolving, and over the next decade libraries, publishers and Amazon will struggle even more fiercely over their distribution and pricing as new markets open up in Asia. South and the Pacific region.
The creator of the ebook envisioned a very different, non-corporate future for its creation – a future where ebooks reached readers in places without access to libraries or bookstores. Hart’s vision was utopian but, as Covid brings us back to our screens, perhaps others will keep his dream of a universal, free library alive.
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