In Praise of Project Gutenberg

So, when was the first time you encountered ebooks? For many folk, it was when they got their first Palm PDA, iPhone, or Blackberry. I think everyone has the same reaction: Wow! Thousands of free books available for the downloading. Here’s what you may not know: nearly all of them come from the most enlightened volunteer project of our era: Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg (abbreviated as PG) has created over 30,000 documents since its establishment by Michael S. Hart. Its first document was posted online in 1971.

Whoa! 1971? That was before many of today’s ebook readers were born. PG is the oldest digital library and it continues actively to this day.

I first encountered PG in 1978, using a VueComm terminal and 110 BAUD modem to connect to Unix on a PDP-11 at the Zoology Department of the University of Toronto. It was a “huh!” moment. I was able to ftp Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice and read them on the terminal.

Since 1971 volunteers around the world have laboriously typed in, scanned in, or read in the full texts of public domain books. Other volunteers proofread the results before releasing the titles. In 1971 all books were plain text, allowing them to be read on terminals connected to mini and mainframe computers.

Nowadays PG releases books in plain text, HTML, PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and Plucker formats. The “free” books you get for the Kindle, Sony Reader, Kobo Reader, iPhone, iPad, etc., are mostly obtained from the vast PG library. The titles are primarily English language but there’s an increasing number of non-English books.

The PG collection is certainly heavy on classics of literature, history, and philosophy, but it also has mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, westerns, romances, and nonfiction books, including cookbooks. You can also find copies of old periodicals at the Project Gutenberg site.

All you need to enjoy a good PG book is a computer or handheld device with e-reader software.

What a marvellous project. I say “kudos!” And I say, if you’re the contributing type, PG could use your time and/or donations to keep the project moving. You can help them continue the work of preserving world culture.

Project Gutenberg is located at

For ease of downloading, a great site that carries PG material is

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Project Gutenberg

  1. Good post. I can’t say that I remember exactly when I encountered PG, but I found it to be a wonderful resource.
    I even turned some of my favourites from the PG library into Newtonbooks.

  2. Thanks Julio. I still think gophers were cool. So *fast* compared to www.

    The PG folks and the distributed proofreaders have done monumental work. A monument would be nice.

  3. Hi Gene,

    Project Gutenberg is awesome! As a former scientist, it always makes me furious that so many scientific papers are not only pay-per-view (since the scientists themselves “give” their articles to the journals who are charging for access for free and since much of the science is publicly funded anyway) but that they typically charge so much- up to £30 per article. Project Gutenberg is a great force against this mindset.

    On the other hand, it surprises me that- even yet- quite a lot of major books by big authors are still not available as e-books: new releases are, but bestsellers from even 5 years ago are often not.
    Best Wishes,

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