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Project Gutenberg founder is dead

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Obituary The man who arguably gave the world its first glimpse of non-Sci-Fi e-books, Michael Stern Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, has died at the age of 64. Hart’s passing was announced in this obituary, posted on the Gutenberg Project’s Website.

For those who understand e-books only in terms of the Amazon Kindle, Hart’s name might be unknown. Yet it was his idea, launched in 1971, to capture books in an electronic archive, that first such attempt. At the time, such an archive was a radical idea; today, it’s an expectation.

His work depended, in part, an unlimited account created on a mainframe at the University of Illinois, which was also a node on the early Internet. The project has since its inception depended on the work of volunteers to help capture books as text – initially as copy-typists, later using scanners. Over time, Project Gutenberg moved between universities, and is currently hosted by ibiblio at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill.

As Project Gutenberg grew and attracted adherents outside the United States, it also had to negotiate the labyrinth of international copyright: a book in the public domain in one country might still be under copyright in other countries. So it was that the project eventually spawned spin-offs and affiliates in Australia, Canada, Germany, Europe and other locations.

Hart’s legacy also aligns with other early visionaries: that of a world in which important information is free. The project necessarily focused on out-of-copyright works – and by dint of academic and public support, its books are free. Literacy, Hart believed, was opportunity.

Amen to that. ®

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