Online libraries: the reader’s final frontier
Technological advancement in general, and the emergence of the Internet in particular, have been blamed for an increase in illiteracy, for a degradation of language and for an overall decrease in the quality of the written word in recent years.
True, as our own Ursula Feist pointed out in a recent article, text messaging and chatting programs have prompted the younger generations to find abbreviations for almost every word, as though the words themselves were not of enough importance to write out in full or correctly. Others have accused the Internet of taking the place of books for entertainment. The same happened, no doubt, when TV first made its appearance. With short, undemanding blogs becoming a more popular source of information than regular-length news columns, which, sadly, are often thought of as “too complicated,” we fear that future readers will not have the skills necessary to tackle a proper paragraph.
If any of this is true, and it seems a little forced to argue that none of it is, at least what the Internet is giving back to the literary world equals what it may be taking away from it.
By far its most important and impressive contribution is the concept of open sourcing in online libraries. Sites like Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) digitally republish books with expired copyrights, making them available for free online. Named for the 15th Century printing press that spawned a huge expansion in literacy, Project Gutenburg, like its namesake, endeavors to make great books more accessible than they have ever been. The project ’s founder, Michael Hart, started scanning books into e-text form in 1971 and, since then, the number of books available for free download through the site has grown to 20,000. Though most texts are in English, Gutenburg has begun to collect e-books in other languages, including French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. The incredible online catalogue is compiled and maintained mostly by volunteers, who help by proofreading, typing in or scanning books, promoting the site, and finding wanted texts.
Another massive online catalogue of free books is Bartelby (www.bartelby.com), which organizes its library in categories of reference, verse, fiction and non-fiction. Especially useful as a reference, Bartelby (taking its name from Herman Melville ’s copyist character) offers such weighty works as the 70-volume Harvard Classics & Shelf of Fiction, as well as the Complete Oxford Shakespeare.
Of course, the hundreds of thousands of books already published online are just the tip of the iceberg. The number sounds endless, but you ’ll find you don’t always get the desired results when you enter a search on Project Gutenburg or Bartelby. I was personally disappointed when I realized that anything by Velikovsky was probably too recent to be in public domain. Still, with more and more volunteers adding to the collections all the time, the future of online books looks promising. Unlike library collections, which can suffer physical damage and loss, or can be kept from the public if an institution closes for lack of funds, once posted, the e-books won ’t be going anywhere.
“I get a sense of achievement that the work I do will be ‘out there’ for a long time,” says Project Gutenburg volunteer Col Choat. “We haven’t begun to realize where technology will lead us. The books I prepare will be able to be read by people anywhere on earth, and even beyond, by astronauts traveling to Mars: ‘Send up The Odyssey, will you Scottie, I have always meant to read it.’”