Project Gutenberg

Fifty years ago today, at the age of 24, Michael Stern Hart of Urbana, Illinois, founded Project Gutenberg. It was the world’s first digital library, using technology that would eventually help create the Internet.

Michael invented ebooks.

An interesting guy, his parents were both professors at the University of Illinois. He graduated from U of I in two years with a degree in Human-Machine Interfaces. How’s that for a complicated and specific field of study?

In the late 1960s, he spent some time as a street musician. Use your imagination for what his life was like. He made very little money, working out of passion and desire to capture and make great books available to everyone.

He passed away from a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 64.

For the first 25 years of Project Gutenberg, digital text files of public-domain books were hand-typed by Michael and other volunteers. By the mid-90s, the Internet and other technologies changed everything; and the last 25 years saw explosive growth for all kinds of digital formats of the written word.

What exists today is Project Gutenberg, a free resource with an unbelievable variety of materials that have expired copyright, placing them in the public domain. The website says 60,000 ebooks are available, among other things, such as audiobooks, pictures, and sheet music.

With over one million ebook downloads per week, you can do the math of how active the site is.

At this writing, the top downloaded Christian-themed books were:

The Confessions of St. Augustine
Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
The Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan
The Pursuit of God by Tozer

Among other available authors of interest for Christians are Dostoyevsky, Luther, Chesterton, Newton, Aquinas, and Sheldon. Think of an old book, and you can find your choice of digital formats.

For a constantly updated list of Christian-themed books, click here.

I find it interesting ebooks are characterized by many literature and publishing purists as something less than a real book when the format was founded by literature-loving people with no financial interest but with a driving passion to make classic works available to all, no matter where they live and regardless of their ability to pay.

So, today we remember Michael Hart, whose quiet legacy lives on.

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