Reading for free online

Heather Allen investigates Project Gutenberg, which has the goal of digitizing all out-of-copyright books

My daughter was sick with a cold, lying on the couch and wanting to read the classic Heidi by Johanna Spyri. I don’t own a copy and so I searched for the tale of childhood and fresh mountain air on my e-reader. As I suspected, Heidi was available as an e-book. And best of all, I could download a copy for free.

Thousands of classic tales are freely available for the public to download because of an initiative called Project Gutenberg. This project, which aims to translate old books into digital format, was the brainchild of American Michael Hart. The idea came to him as a university student in the early ‘70s when he took a copy of the Declaration of Independence from his backpack and copied it into his computer.

Using a system that was to become the Internet, Hart made a goal for himself: by the end of the 20th Century he wanted to digitize 10,000 of the most commonly consulted books. His goal has been surpassed. To date more than 38,000 titles have been digitally formatted.

Hart didn’t begin his venture to make money. He foresaw that in the future, people would read digitized books and wanted to make sure that the classics remained free and available to all. To this day, the Gutenberg Project only selects books that are in the public domain and have no copyright issues.

Although it originated before the advent of the personal computer, Project Gutenberg has gained more attention as e-books become increasingly popular. I first encountered Project Gutenberg after scouring my own virtual bookshelves for a copy of Washington Irving’s classic: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It was the night before Halloween and rather than waiting to check out a copy at the library or visit a bookstore, I downloaded a copy onto my e-reader. To my surprise, it was free.

Project Gutenberg, named after the German inventor of the printing press, has a few critics, but none that seem too serious. The most prominent complaint is that when the project started, not enough attention was paid to the particular editions of classics that were reproduced. At that time each book had to be manually entered into a computer, but with advancements in technology, this is no longer the case.

A huge selection of authors have their works on Project Gutenberg including Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Austen and Tolstoy. The list isn’t perfect, weighting some authors more heavily than others, but it is a beginning. A broader selection of books, as well as foreign language books, are continually being added to the database.

Readers can search for a particular book on their e-reader, or by visiting Project Gutenberg online at: There is also a Canadian version: Although, sadly, Michael Hart died late last year, the project, as he would have wished, continues to grow.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.


Just Posted

Human remains found at Silver Creek property

RCMP have been searching the property in the 2200 block of Salmon River Road for the past three days

Rollover closes road

No serious injuries reported in a rollover off South Main in Penticton

Raven story shines light at Children’s Showcase

Season opener of the Children’s Showcase in Penticton

Student leadership conference hits home

Nearly 500 Grade 5 students taking part in leadership conference in Penticton

Penticton dancers headed to Germany for world championship

Penticton dancers representing Canada at World Dance Championships

VIDEO: Sears liquidation sales continue across B.C.

Sales are expected to continue into the New Year

New B.C. acute care centre opens for young patients, expectant mothers

Facility aims to make B.C. Children’s Hospital visits more comfortable

Search ramps up for B.C. woman after dog, car found near Ashcroft

Jenny Lynn Larocque’s vehicle and dog were found in Venables Valley, but there is no sign of her

Police officer hit by car, stabbed in Edmonton attack back on job

Const. Mike Chernyk, 48, returned to work Thursday

UBC medical students learn to care for Indigenous people

Students in health-related studies to take course, workshop to help better serve Aboriginal people

Dorsett has 2 goals, assist in Canucks’ 4-2 win over Sabres

‘It was a real good hockey game by our group,’ Canucks coach Travis Green said.

Berry disappointed: Bear tries to eat fake fruit on woman’s door wreath

A Winnipeg woman has taken her berry-embellished wreath down, after a hungry bear visited her porch

B.C. search groups mobilize for missing mushroom picker

Searchers from across the province look for Frances Brown who has been missing since Oct. 14.

Have you heard about Black Press scholarships?

Up to 37 scholarships are awarded each year to students throughout British Columbia

Most Read