I felt an unaccountable sense of loss at reading tonight in the Chronicle of Higher Education (paper edition no-less) that the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart, has died at the age of 64. This is a little strange since I had no idea who had founded Project Gutenberg until I read the obituary. But Project Gutenberg I know, and I think I knew immediately when I ran across it that it was already and would continue to be an invaluable resource for readers and scholars, this even though I’ve never been much of a champion of e-books. I guess it felt a bit like I had discovered belatedly the identity of a person who had given me a great gift and never had the chance to thank him.
One aspect of Hart’s vision for Project Gutenberg struck me in relationship to some of the things I’ve been thinking about in relationship to the Digital Humanities. That’s Hart’s decision to go with something that was simple and nearly universal as an interface rather than trying to sexy, with it, and up to date. Says the Chronicle
His early experiences clearly informed his choices regarding Project Gutenberg. He was committed to lo-fi—the lowest reasonable common denominator of textual presentation. That was for utterly pragmatic reasons: He wanted his e-texts to be readable on 99 percent of the existing systems of any era, and so insisted on “Plain-Vanilla ASCII” versions of all the e-texts generated by Project Gutenberg.
That may seem a small—even retro—conceit, but in fact it was huge. From the 80s on, as the Internet slowly became more publicly manifest, there were many temptations to be “up to date”: a file format like WordStar, TeX, or LaTeX in the 1980s, or XyWrite, MS Word, or Adobe Acrobat in the 90s and 2000s, might provide far greater formatting features (italics, bold, tab stops, font selections, extracts, page representations, etc.) than ASCII. But because Mr. Hart had tinkered with technology all his life, he knew that “optimal formats” always change, and that today’s hi-fi format was likely to evolve into some higher-fi format in the next year or two. Today’s ePub version 3.01 was, to Mr. Hart, just another mile marker along the highway. To read an ASCII e-text, via FTP, or via a Web browser, required no change of the presentational software—thereby ensuring the broadest possible readership.
Mr. Hart’s choice meant that the Project Gutenberg corpus—now 36,000 works—would always remain not just available, but readable. What’s more, it has been growing, in every system since.
This is no small thing. The ephemeral character of digital humanities projects bothers me. By ephemeral I don’t mean they are intellectually without substance. I think the intellectual character of the work can be quite profound. However, the forms in which the work is done can disappear or be outdated tomorrow. Hart’s decision to use ASCII is in some sense an effort to replicate the durability of the book. Books, for all the fragility of paper, have a remarkable endurance and stability overall. The basic form doesn’t change and the book used by an ancient in the middle ages is, more or less, still usable by me in the same fashion. By contrast I can’t even open some of my old files in my word processor. I think the work I did was substantial, but the form it was placed in was not enduring. Harts decision makes sense to me, but I’m not sure how it might be extended to other kinds of projects in the digital humanities.