Electronic Books for the 21st Century

It was 1971 when Michael Hart began with the U.S. Declaration of Independence and then moved on to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, individual books of the Bible and then finally Shakespearean plays (one at a time). No, he hadn’t set a course designed to educate himself in the great works of the western world, although he surely must have developed a finer appreciation for them. Instead, Hart wanted to allow each of us access to these works using technology not available to the general population at that time. His goal was to ensure that the world’s great literature and other important documents would never be lost or become unavailable to the general population. His idea was to do this by copying these works to a computer system and then offer them free of charge to anyone who wanted them. His vision over thirty years ago has grown today into an extraordinary library of over 4000 works with approximately one new work being added each day.

Project Gutenberg

Hart named this ambitious endeavor Project Gutenberg after the inventor of moveable type who made mass production of books such as the Bible possible in the 15th century. Project Gutenberg was designed to make available the Bible as well as many other books using the emerging technology of the 20th century. The process which continues even today requires volunteers to convert printed text that has entered the public domain (currently works published before 1923) into a digital format.

Originally, these works were laboriously keyed from printed texts, but the use of scanners has replaced this process making it easier, faster, and more accurate. Once the text has been entered and verified, it is saved into an electronic text format (ASCII) that allows it to be read by any computer.

Once completed, these works are saved to the Project Gutenberg web site (http://promo.net/pg/) shown in Figure 1 where they can be downloaded by anyone who wants to read them or use them for research. Actually, you can use them for anything you want because they are considered to be in the public domain. This includes posting them to your web site for others to use, printing them for use by yourself or others, distributing them in any way you want, and even including them on CDs.

The works fall into three basic categories: light literature such as Peter Pan (one of the earliest works added to the list), heavy literature such as Moby Dick, and references such as dictionaries. The majority of these works are in the public domain. A few are modern works that are still under copyright protection, but these have similar unrestricted rights of use.

Using the Gutenberg Web Site

Once you are at the Project Gutenberg site, it is easy to find the work you want by searching by author or title using the search box (shown in Figure 2) that is found on the opening Gutenberg page. Selecting the Advanced Search link takes you to a more detailed search engine (shown in Figure 3), which allows you to select options such as languages or subjects.

Once you have located the book you want, you have a choice of downloading a text version that can be read immediately or selecting a zipped version (notice the arrow in Figure 4). A zipped version loads faster but must be unzipped first using software such as WinZip (http://download.com.com/3000-2250-8132587.html) before you can use the file. If you select the text option, the text will appear on screen as soon as it downloads. Once that occurs, you will need to select File > Save As. If you select the zip option, you will be given a dialogue box asking if you want to save or to open the document. Generally, the best choice is to save first and unzip after you have the file saved. The files are originally saved on the Gutenberg site using abbreviated names. It is easier to keep track of your downloaded books if you save them using a more descriptive name.

Uses of Project Gutenberg

Once you have downloaded a copy of the book you want, what can you do with it? One enterprising person has used the resource to do an in depth study of the vocabulary associated with a wide selection of works. You can see the results of his efforts by accessing http://www.totempole.net/gutenberg/.

A more obvious choice is to read the work for pleasure or knowledge. Because the files are saved in an ASCII or text format, they can be printed or read on a desktop or laptop computer using any word processing program such as Word, Works, or AppleWorks. The easiest way to access the text is to first open your word processing program and then open the recently saved text. The opening pages will begin with Project Gutenberg information as shown in Figure 5. After the initial Gutenberg information, the text will begin. It may be necessary to scroll several pages before you reach the beginning.

Because of the nature of ASCII text, the lines may break so that the entire screen is not used (Figure 6). The paragraph symbols shown in Figure 7 demonstrate the intentional breaks that make the lines shorter than necessary. If you are reading from the computer screen, this may not be an issue, but if you are printing or using the text in another environment, you may want to utilize the full screen. One solution is to use the Find and Replace feature of your word processing software to remove the intentional line breaks. The following steps allow this using Microsoft Word:

  1. Go to Edit > Replace
  2. Click the More button.
  3. Click the Special button.
  4. Select the Paragraph Mark TWICE (Figure 8).
  5. Click in the Replace with box and key in the # symbol.
  6. Click on the Replace All button. (This will allow the “real” paragraphs to be saved.)
  7. Once paragraph designations have been replaced, delete the second Paragraph Mark symbol and delete the # symbol replacing it with a single space (you won’t be able to see any marks). See Figure 9 for an example.
  8. Click on the Replace All button again.
  9. Once the end of lines have been replaced with spaces, change the Find What box to a # symbol. In the Replace with box, place a Paragraph Mark. Click Replace All. This will re-create paragraphs.
  10. To remove any unnecessary spaces, in the Find what box  delete the # symbol and space twice. In the Replace with box, replace the paragraph symbol with a single space. Click on Replace all until no more extra spaces are found.
  11. Go to Edit > Select All.
  12. To separate paragraphs visually, go to Format > Paragraph and choose 6 or 12 points from the Spacing after box.
  13. Add headers with page numbers using View > Header and Footer > Insert Page Number icon.
  14. If you want to have line designations visible, go to File > Page Setup > Layout tab > Line Numbers button.

Many people, however, find that reading on a computer is inconvenient and prefer to read using a more portable format. One option is to convert the text file to a document that can be read by a PDA such as a Palm Pilot. This is possible using software (freeware) such as MakeDoc that can be downloaded from sites such ashttp://www.cognitiveroot.com/makedoc.htm. Figure 10 is an example of a MakeDoc option window used to convert the file. Once the work has been converted to a PDA readable format, it can be installed on a PDA just as you would an application. From that point on, you can read the book at your leisure. The file sizes are small enough that generally you can load several books on a PDA without running out of room. Before using MakeDoc, it is often helpful to first remove line breaks and extra spaces by using the steps above.

Classroom Use

Books such as those available on the Project Gutenberg site have a wide variety of uses within a school. Classroom copies of frequently selected books such as The Red Badge of Courage or The Scarlet Letter can be downloaded by students, teachers, and parents eliminating the cost associated with purchase of these works. Because everyone is using the same “edition,” there are no issues with page numbers when a teacher makes an assignment.  It is not even necessary for students to access the Gutenberg site, because teachers can distribute the works on disks or place them on a school’s Web site.

Unlike printed texts used as class copies, students can be encouraged to highlight and annotate texts. Using a word processing program such as Microsoft Word, students can add electronic notations to the pages and then submit them to the teacher for review. Students can use the search capabilities of the software to locate specific points in the text as assigned by the teacher. Passages can be copied easily encouraging accurate citations. The possibilities are endless and are only limited by a teacher’s ingenuity.

Librarians can be a valuable conduit for this resource helping teachers to know that the site is available and guiding them in ways to use the texts. Distributing a printed list similar to the one below can be a place to start. Creating an instructional guide for converting from ASCII text to a friendlier format (using the steps listed above) is another way to help teachers use this tool. In today’s world of shrinking financial resources for schools, Gutenberg texts can be a way to save important dollars and to open up a wide range of resources to students and teachers. Librarians can be the key to making this happen.

Originally published in Library Media Connection Mar2003, Vol. 21 Issue 6, p53

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