We owe it to Johannes Gutenberg (or more precisely to Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg) that the shelves of libraries worldwide are filled to the brim with books. It was him who invented printing from movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century and opened the world of letters as well as education, formerly limited almost exclusively to members of the clergy, to the public. Thanks to him, literature as we know it today had a chance to emerge from the darkness of the Middle Ages and to enter, with growing literacy of people, even the humblest homes.
Today books belong to our daily lives. In fact, publishers flood us with more books every year than they can possibly sell and more than we can ever read. However, these days we no longer depend on printing. The new communication technologies have changed the book market as well as our reading habits. EBooks are constantly gaining importance. They are available in every online bookshop, but there are many websites that offer free online publications, especially (although not only) of old books that are no longer protected by copyright laws.
One such website is Project Gutenberg that aims at creating eBooks and at distributing them for free. It was founded by Michael S. Hart (1947-2011) who had the idea to digitize the American Declaration of Independence and to make the text file available to everyone in 1971. Today, with more than 42,000 eBooks in various languages and file formats, Project Gutenberg may be one of the world’s largest collections as it says on the project homepage. In addition, partners, affiliates and other resources of Project Gutenberg offer more than 100,000 eBooks.
Project Gutenberg (like Wikipedia) is based on the work of volunteers and on donations. All books under the Project Gutenberg Licence, which is included in each eBook, can be downloaded or read online completely free of charge and almost all of them are in the public domain, thus free to use as you please – at least in the USA. In other countries eBooks may still be copyrighted because laws differ. In the European Union, for instance, copyright protection expires 70 years after the death of the writer, while the period is only 50 years in the USA.
However, on the electronic level the benefit of Project Gutenberg is very much the same as that of printing from movable type during the past four hundred years: it makes written texts available for everybody and thus spreads reading culture to places and people who have been out of reach before. It goes even beyond that scope because everybody can contribute another read (digitizing an old book or giving permission for unlimited non-commercial worldwide use for own copyrighted work), record an audiobook or report errors. And of course, donations are welcome, too.
As for me, I must admit that I can’t come to like eBooks. For me the smell of paper and ink is an essential part of the pleasure of reading, not to mention the haptic delight that a paperback or hardcover in my hands gives me.