PRESENTATION: Reconsidering Project Gutenberg’s Significance as an Early Digitization Project

July 9th, 2019 § 0 comments

Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg is often regarded as the first ebook publisher with Hart typing up the Declaration of Independence on a Xerox Sigma V at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 1971. This mythology has perpetuated despite contradictory evidence: Hart did not coin the name ‘Project Gutenberg’ until the late 1980s, an early version of Milton’s Paradise Lost was an updated copy of a 1965 digitization by Joseph Raben at CUNY; and the Project’s first full book, the King James Bible, was not released until 1989.

In this paper, I challenge hagiographic accounts of Michael Hart’s early work within the broader context of early collaborative digitization work and innovations with the computer facilities at UIUC in the early 1970s. Computers and the Humanities, a prominent early digital humanities journal notes a range of digitization projects during the 1960s, and the Oxford Text Archive, a digital publication interchange network, formed in 1976. These early projects were more active than Hart, who only began work in earnest in the 1990s with the benefit of Usenet, FTP, and Gopher. Furthermore, Hart acknowledged but never used UIUC’s PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), an early computer network with a larger audience than ARPANET in the early 1970s, to disseminate texts. Through re-appraising Hart’s work within its historical and geographical context, the paper challenges the concept of a lone genius inventor of ebooks to propose a more inclusive history of digital publishing.

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