Once upon a time, the list of material not available for free on the Internet included almost every book ever published. The problem was that unless a book or other printed format was either currently in print or available in multiple libraries, it wasn’t conveniently available to much of anyone at all.
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Now, many libraries and archives are digitizing their collections. Not only old books, but old pamphlets, sheet music, maps, manuscripts, etc. have become more accessible than ever before.
I have been writing a series of posts on Civil War music for my blog Musicology for Everyone. I have relied heavily on the Library of Congress’ collection of digitized Civil War sheet music. Before it went online, I and anyone else interested in viewing the collection would have had to travel to Washington.
Besides the efforts of large and small libraries and archives, at least two major digitization projects are underway.
The oldest predates the Internet. Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, obtained an account on the university’s mainframe computer with nearly unlimited time. To give back, he decided to make 10,000 or so heavily consulted books publicly available either free or very cheap by the end of the century. When he digitized his copy of the Declaration of Independence in 1971, Project Gutenberg was born.
The University of Illinois computer was an original part of what eventually became the Internet, but that was way in the future. Personal computers, if they existed at all, were made from kits by hobbyists. The first pre-assembled small computers (Apple II, PET 2001, TRS-80) all first appeared in 1977.
And yet Hart was convinced that the general public would one day have access to computers and wanted to make useful content available on them. The only available technology at the time was to type the content by hand, so Hart began to recruit volunteers to help him. Usable image scanners and optical character recognition software did not become available until 1986.
By this time, Project Gutenberg has far outstripped Hart’s original goal. It has digitized some 38,000 books. All of them are in public domain. That means most of them were originally published before 1923.
You can read Project Gutenberg books online or download them to any ebook reader. The books are free, but the project solicits donations.
Just a few of the old books at the British Library
By now, Google Books, has scanned more than 20,000,000 books and magazines. In August 2010 it made an inventory of all known extant books worldwide and determined there are just under 130 million. It plans to digitize all of them by 2020.
Problems with Google Books
Unlike Project Gutenberg, Google does not have its scans proofread before putting them online. As a result, pages may be in the wrong order, scanned upside down, or simply unreadable. Google doesn’t make it easy for readers to report these and other problems, either.
Not everything is available for free on the Internet.
But Project Gutenberg and Google Books, among other projects, have already made a tremendous amount of content freely available. If Google succeeds in its stated intention to digitize every extant book in the entire world, a disproportionate amount of the world’s information will be freely available.
And not only on the Internet, by the way. You can download them to your ebook readers, too.