Good Reading : February 2007
FEBRUARY 2007 ı goodreading 21 Books turn to dust every day and vanish forever. For the volunteers of Project Gutenberg Australia, preserving books for future generations is a race against time – or rather, silverfish, foxing, and spring cleaning at the nation’s libraries. Colin Choat and his team are the Indiana Joneses of the book world. They comb the internet and back stacks of libraries tracking down books that are in the public domain, they scan the books, and then share them with the world via the Project Gutenberg Australia website. Since they set up shop in Sydney in 2000, the book hunters have bagged many of the premier works of Australian history and literature – but any book from any genre is welcome.Thanks to the efforts of Choat and his team, over 1100 free eBooks are available on their website. The sister site in the United States offers over 20,000 free eBooks online. The mission to preserve books is important and, according to Choat, ‘it’s really great fun. When you’re trying to find a book, and you finally find it some- where, you feel like you’re going to take it back home and liberate it.’ It doesn’t take a lot of expensive tech- nology to rescue a book from obscurity. It can be scanned using a $100 scanner, most of which now come with optical character recognition software.The next step is to edit the text file from the scan. Once the file is proofread, it gets posted. Unfortunately, some books Project Gutenberg Australia would like to have, particularly early Australiana, cannot be found anywhere. But miracles do happen. Jan Ernst Heere’s translation of Abel Tasman’s journal was published 108 years ago. Heere is an obscure figure, only a handful of copies of his book are known to exist, and they sell for several thousand dollars. After many years of fruitless search, Choat was surprised to one day receive an email from a man in a remote corner of New South Wales who had a facsimile copy of the elusive book. He snail mailed Choat a copy, and the rare journal was soon available on the website. ‘A number of people have contacted me expressing their appreciation of being able to see a book that they’d otherwise never be able to see,’ says Choat. Project Gutenberg Australia’s collection of works on and by Australian explorers is considered by some to be the most extensive in the world. Since Project Gutenberg Australia posted its first eBook, George Orwell’s Nineteen-eighty Four, six years ago, over 100 volunteers have created eBooks for the website, although a core of five regu- lar volunteers have produced the bulk of them. One volunteer has single-handedly produced over 250. From start to finish, the process of creating an eBook takes approximately 40 hours for an average- length book of 250 pages. ‘There are a lot of books that are becoming harder and harder to find, and they’re not likely to be published again,’ says Choat. For this reason alone, old books will never make today’s bestseller lists, but they still have an eager audience. ‘It’s surprising how many people are interested in them when they become readily available on the net.’ Giving new life to old books has never been easy. But it became harder in Australia on New Year’s Day 2005, when the US–Australia Free Trade Agreement came into effect. In Australia, an author’s copyright had traditionally lasted for the life of the author plus 50 years. The FTA extended the period of embargo from 50 to 70 years for authors dying in 1955 or later. No new books will be entering the public domain in Australia until 2025. ‘We lost a generation of writers,’ says Choat. ‘We have to wait another 20 years to see that work. And you have to ask: who does it really benefit? So many of those works don’t get published again, you just don’t see them again. In spite of that, we can’t make them available. They’re just stuck down in these dusty stacky areas of the libraries and we just hope they’re still there in another twenty years.’ Choat and his book hunters are creating the digital building blocks for the world’s future electronic libraries. When new eBook and mobile computing technologies take off, the eBooks will be waiting. However, there are other, more immediate motivations for some of the volunteers. Already, Project Gutenberg Australia books are a boon not just to avid readers but to the visually impaired. Reading eBooks on computer allows them to adjust the print size and screen contrast to suit. Demand for eBooks is strong and getting stronger: over one million book lovers visited the Project Gutenberg Australia website last year. And while there is no such thing as a heaven for books, if there were, it might look a lot like Project Gutenberg Australia. Visit Project Gutenberg Australia at Gutenberg.net.au and its US sister site at Gutenberg.net COLIN CHOAT is the founder of Project Gutenberg here in Australia. With his dedicated team of book hunters, he’s making sure that old books will achieve immortality in cyberspace. CJ COONEY talked to him about this magnificent project. reading life the book huntersAbove: Two beautiful paintings from Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales by John White, rescued by the book hunters and available online. Above left: Colin Choat.
December / January 2007