Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Notes For May 17th, 2011

The Internet's Public (Domain) Libraries

Everybody knows that the Internet is an incredible repository of information. It's like the world's largest public library, and just like any public library, one can obtain books and even audiobooks on the Internet, free of charge. And yes, it's completely legal. Why? Because it's all in the public domain, which means that the material is not protected by copyright law. Therefore, distributing and downloading it is perfectly legal. And there's a tremendous amount of material in the public domain - more than you'd ever imagine.


In 1996, not long after I first became an active user of the Internet, I came across the Project Gutenberg web site. Named after Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the mechanical printing press, the site hosted an impressive archive of public domain books in plain-text format. While it was nice to be able to read some classic novels that I didn't have in my bookcase, slogging through incredibly long plain text files on a computer screen was far from easy on my eyes - or my nerves, for that matter.

Imagine what it must have been like back in the 1970s, when college student Michael Hart founded Project Gutenberg at the University of Illinois, typing up texts and storing them as ASCII files on the university's Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer. Hart's first e-text? The Declaration of Independence. His original goal was to digitize 10,000 commonly referenced public domain texts - novels, short stories, plays, non-fiction works, and other texts - and turn them into searchable ASCII files that could be stored on a computer. Today, the collection has grown to well over 30,000 texts in various languages.

The University of Illinois' Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer was one of fifteen nodes on a network that would serve as the precursor to the Internet. In the 1980s, the age of telecommunication would find Project Gutenberg e-texts spread through bulletin board systems. For those of you too young to remember, a bulletin board system was simply a personal computer running software that enabled others to access information stored on it via a dial-up modem. The bulletin board system was a kind of mini-Internet, its software providing familiar features such as electronic messaging and the ability to download and upload information.

By the late 1980's, the invention of optical scanning technology and OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software enabled Project Gutenberg's volunteers to digitize texts must faster and easier than manually typing them in. When recordable CD and DVD media came about, Project Gutenberg made its collection available on disc.

In the early to mid 1990s, when the Internet evolved from newsgroups to the World Wide Web, the e-book was an intriguing, virgin concept. Now, some fifteen years later, e-books have become a popular alternative to print editions. The technology for reading e-texts - both software and hardware - has evolved and gotten much better. Gone are the days when reading an e-book meant loading large plain text files into your word processor or Notepad and scrolling down, down, down to infinity while you read.

Today, you don't need a computer at all to read e-text. There are hand-held electronic devices with viewing screens for reading e-text, like the Sony Reader and Amazon's Kindle. The new model, the Kindle DX, offers a much larger viewing screen and wireless Internet access capabilities for downloading e-books. I'm waiting for the price to go down, and it will as the popularity of the device increases.

While I'm waiting, I still read e-books on my PC. I've found a great repository for e-texts. It's a site called Munseys.com and it takes Project Gutenberg's concept in a new and exciting direction. Hosting thousands of free, public domain e-texts in various languages, Munseys has lots of obscure titles that you'd never find anywhere else - not even at Project Gutenberg. You want to read a seedy 1940s pulp fiction novel? They've got lots of them. Are you looking for a copy of Atlantic Monthly magazine, circa 1861? It's here. How about a children's health class primer from 1885? They've got it.

Munseys is packed with tons of rare public domain texts in a variety of subjects: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, it's all here. And if you're looking for more familiar classics like L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Leo Tolstoy's War And Peace, Mark Twain's The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, or the text of your favorite Shakespeare play, they've got all that, too. Some of the books, like the 1940s pulp fiction novels, include scans of the original covers.

Where Munseys really shines is the way that the e-books are presented. Just select the format you want from the drop-down box and click Download. That's all there is to it. But what a format selection: HTML, Acrobat PDF, eBookwise EB1150, Rocket Ebook, Plucker, Sony Reader, Mobipocket / Kindle, Isilo, Microsoft Reader, Adobe Mobile / EPUB. Whether you read your e-text on your computer or on a handheld device, it's all here. No more are you confined to those endlessly long, ugly plain-text files. Whatever format you chose, the text is presented attractively and is easy to navigate through.

Munseys also includes a means of reviewing or commenting on e-books, plus a message board forum and a blog. If you're into e-books, you must see Munseys.com - the best e-book site on the web!


With the popularity of public domain e-texts on the Internet, it was just a matter of time before somebody came up with the idea of public domain audiobooks. In August of 2005, Hugh McGuire, a Canadian writer and web developer, founded LibriVox, an organization dedicated to producing free audiobook recordings of public domain texts.

LibriVox provides a large catalog of audiobooks that are free to download and keep. The subjects include novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and non-fiction. You can download all the files directly, subscribe to LibriVox's podcast, or get the files free from iTunes. The sound files are divided by chapter and provided in three different formats: 64kb MP3, 128kb MP3, and variable bit rate OGG. Even at 64kb, the sound quality is great.

All of LibriVox's audiobook titles are unabridged. Though the primary language is English, they have many titles in a wide variety of other languages, which can be useful for those who are studying foreign languages. All of LibriVox's titles are in the public domain and are recorded by the readers. LibriVox readers are volunteers from around the world.

If you would like to become a LibriVox volunteer reader, all you need is a computer, a microphone, recording software, and your voice. If you don't have sound recording software, there's a great freeware sound recording and editing software package called Audacity that you can download. Complete information is provided on the LibriVox site, which includes a message board forum for readers and non-readers alike.

How good are the LibriVox volunteer readers? Surprisingly good - much better than you'd expect, considering that they aren't actors or professional readers. They're book lovers, and you can tell that they put their hearts into it. Some of them are downright fantastic; I'm currently listening to LibriVox's unabridged recording of Mark Twain's classic memoir Life on the Mississippi, and the reader, John Greenman, has the perfect voice for it. He makes it sound like Twain himself is reading the book!

You can browse LibriVox's catalog of titles on their web site, but their audiobook files are hosted by the Internet Archive, which is the Internet's largest repository of public domain material - everything from e-texts and music to audiobooks, old time radio, software, and even movies!

Go to the Internet Archive's Librivox collection, and in addition to downloading the audiobook files, you can also listen to them via the Archive's streaming audio feed. If you want to burn the audiobooks to CD, you can also download printable cover art for each title at the Archive.

Founded by a book lover for book lovers, LibriVox is a great way to enjoy audiobooks at no cost. Classics fans take note: their catalog will make you salivate!

I encourage you all to explore the incredible wealth of information available in the public domain.

Quote Of The Day

"A book is like a garden carried in the pocket." - Chinese Proverb

Vanguard Video

Today's video is a two-part presentation about the LibriVox public domain audiobook project. Enjoy!

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