Celebrating Fifty Years of Ebooks

Letter from the Executive Director, July 2021

Some things have simple beginnings. Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1971, Michael S. Hart, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois, was given an operator’s account to the University’s Xerox Sigma V mainframe and thereby access to the ARPANET. He was also given the freedom to do whatever he wanted with his “spare time” on the network. At the time, access to computing power, the computing cycles, and the network itself were extremely valuable. Hart estimated their value at $100 million (although that was probably high), so he thought he should “do something extremely worthwhile to do justice with [the computer time he] had been given” by trying to create something of lasting value. Hart typed up the text of a copy of the Declaration of Independence he had been given earlier that day, with the idea of distributing the file. He initially thought of emailing the file to everyone on the network (he narrowly missed being a pioneer in spam!), but the system prevented him from doing so. Instead, Hart posted the text file on the network and thus launched what was to become Project Gutenberg.  

With that file, a new age of digital books began. In the past 50 years, Project Gutenberg has grown to include more than 60,000 works, all freely available in plain text. While this is a stunning achievement for a simple volunteer effort with less than $60,000 in annual organizational income, Project Gutenberg is hardly the world’s largest free book repository. The Internet Archive, by comparison, contains some 2.3 million texts, and HathiTrust contains 8,415,795 book titles

The impact of Project Gutenberg is less about its size than the influence it has had on digital reading and how we conceive of consuming digital books. While far from displacing print books, e-books have become a significant market segment in both retail and libraries. Sales of e-book files have also exploded over that time. Today, there are more than 6 million digital e-books for sale on Amazon. E-book sales in the US were estimated at more than 191 million units in 2020. In the library marketplace, readers worldwide borrowed 289 million e-books from the Overdrive platform alone. According to Library Journal, in 2020 e-books accounted for 18% of all items circulated by libraries, though this included a spike that can be attributed in part to the loss of access to physical library collections during the pandemic.

And these shifts over the past decades are leading to significant changes in investments, infrastructure, and, yes, standards. The development of file formats to support digital content have made significant progress, to the point that the plain ASCII text files of Project Gutenberg are almost defiantly retro in their appearance. Management of electronic collections has been a focus of NISO’s work for more than 15 years, as libraries have grown to adapt to the needs of managing electronic materials and serving digital collections to patrons. The changes are also impacting how libraries collaborate to share content. In June, a series of announcements that began and ended with LYRASIS, but also included BiblioLabs and New York Public Library, portend interesting shifts in how e-books are managed by libraries in this ever-changing environment. The positioning regarding libraries and e-books has been ongoing for a while, since Macmillan fought with libraries in 2019, but continued into the pandemic year, and into this year with Amazon staking its own position against the library e-book world. Digital circulation of electronic books seems to be setting up as the battle royal  for the 2020s, despite the longstanding rights of libraries to circulate content, the principle of first sale, and copyright law.  

Yet in the fifty years since the posting of the first digital text on the ARPANET, it remains obvious that our world is being transformed. Much as it was back in the fifteenth century, the impacts of technological advances are transforming our lives in  ways large and small. The launch of Project Gutenberg and etexts (as Hart named them) has transformed access to content of all types—and our interactions with books in particular—in ways we still haven’t fully grasped yet. With this in mind, enjoy whatever summer reading you may have.



Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO