Thursday, September 8, 2011

Michael Hart, The First Ebook Publisher Ever, RIP

Long before the Kindle, before the Nook. Before laptops and PDAs, before, frankly, the personal computer was invented, Michael Hart had a vision of transmitting books as text, via computer. This was 1971, and that first book was the Declaration of Independence.

Michael Hart died this week.

I hear people be dismissive of Project Gutenberg these days, and it always makes me think less of the person who says it. Clearly they have no understanding of just how important PG was to the development of the ebook, and how important their ongoing efforts still are.

Think about this: Project Gutenberg was already publishing ebooks when you had to go to a computer lab to read them. Michael Hart wasn't just a little ahead of his time, he was decades ahead. He started publishing ebooks before there were scanners with OCR software. They had to type them in.

But even that early he had more than a vision of books on computers. From the start he understood some things that many current ebook publishers do not: full cross-platform compatibility. The whole point of putting a book on a computer was to make it available. Not just to preserve it, or have it for a select few. Maybe their presentation isn't so slick, but frankly, slick formatting almost always requires a more advanced and specialized reader. And MH was always sending out newsletters, asking for more innovation, more ideas, more ways to serve these books to more people. More formats, more media, more access points.

The other thing that Michael Hart always did was use open source principles right from the start. It is an army of volunteers who do the work on Project Gutenberg. All of us feel a great deal of frustration when people take advantage of the work, and then bitch about an error -- guess what, you can report the error. If you want a perfect FREE library, then do your part. It's not like it takes much effort.

In honor of Michael Hart, I'm going to ask you all to do something which will make helping out Project Gutenberg quick and easy and fun. Consider please joining the Distributed Proofreaders.

Distributed Proofreaders works on the same principle as a distributed computing network. In computing, if you have some effort that takes huge amounts of computing effort and time -- like decoding the human Genome, or major math and physics problems -- you may not have a single computer big enough to handle it, even over years of use. But if you can get a million little computers to join in a network, then you can distribute out tiny parts of the big task to be done in the spare time of each of the smaller computers -- and you'll have more computing power than even the biggest computer in the world.

With the Distributed Proofreaders, they have put this principle to use in proofreading texts for Project Gutenberg. Volunteers do not have to take on the job of proofing an entire book, but only a page or so at a time. You can devote 5 minutes a month, or hours a day. However you want to do it.

The cool part is that you don't even have to be that good of a proofer to do a great job. They put up the text and the image of the page side by side, and you correct the work to make them match.

I believe you can also do scanning or OCR work for them, or post processing, if you're interested in a bigger project.

We will all miss Michael Hart. I ask you to help keep his dream going.

And next time you open your Kindle or Nook or a reader on your iPod, think about the man who, 40 years ago, thought it would be a neat thing to distribute a book via computer.

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