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.


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