The world lost a pioneer this month. I know that this is an unusual topic for our Blog, but bear with me, please. Michael S. Hart passed away on September 6, in his home in Urbana, Illinois. While not exactly a household name, Mr. Hart has changed the way that we teach, read, and share information. You see, Mr. Hart was credited with inventing the “eBook” in 1971. An amazing four decades ago, while he was a student working on computers at the University of Illinois, Mr. Hart was given access to a network-connected mainframe computer, with the goal of improving his skills. Grateful for this opportunity, he looked for a way to repay the university, and apparently, as he often said, he was just at the right place at the right time. While shopping for groceries on the Fourth of July, he was given a fake parchment reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. He thought that, if he put it online, it would not only preserve the information, but would allow the people on the small network to access it at any time. That single document was followed by thousands more, as Mr. Hart recruited hundreds of volunteers to help him manually type or scan thousands of classics in the public domain and copyrighted works they had permission to reproduce. Mr. Hart began to build the massive library known as Project Gutenberg, named after the 15th-century inventor of the printing press. (Langer)
And so, the digital book was born.
It seems unbelievable that a self-described “truck driver who got loose in academia”, (Langer) would become the force behind the shift that would rock the publishing world. It makes me wonder what they next step in publishing might be, and whether, somewhere on a college campus, a student has already begun the shift. Will we be content with eBooks and portable readers, or is there another dimension to books that we can take one step further? Since the books are the content, and not the format, how can they be produced to become even more accessible and appealing to the world’s readers? If Mr. Hart can conceive of the digital library while the Internet was still in its infancy, and generations before iTunes was conceived, perhaps we cannot even see the next shift in reading. However, I think that we will be much more receptive to changes in the way we read, now that Mr. Hart has paved the way.
Langer, Emily. "Project Gutenberg creator Michael S. Hart dies at 64." 8 September 2011. The Washington Post. 10 September 2011 .