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Classic world lit free at Project Gutenberg

Question: Where can you get an unlimited number of personal copies of the world's best classic literature ... for free? Answer: Project Gutenberg. Really. From Plato's "Republic" to the Declaration of Independence, from Zane Grey westerns to Aeso...

Question: Where can you get an unlimited number of personal copies of the world's best classic literature ... for free?
Answer: Project Gutenberg.
Really.
From Plato's "Republic" to the Declaration of Independence, from Zane Grey westerns to Aesop's fables, Project Gutenberg offers up the work (at least that in the public domain) that has stood the test of time.
The only catch: the copies are electronic. You'll have to either read them on-screen, print them out yourself or import them to an e-book reader.
This has advantages and disadvantages: unless you have an e-book reader or a very light laptop, the work is not nearly as convenient to use as a paperback, nor is the screen typically as readable as paper. Usually, there are no margins to scribble in and no page corners to fold over.
But on the other hand, you can't open up a "find" window on a paperback and have it instantly find the quote you're looking for, either. And if you want to attach the quote to your e-mail signature line, you'll have to key it in from the paperback; from the e-text, you just copy and paste. And it's very hard to store conventional books on a space the size of a floppy disk.
E-books are becoming the rage now, but Project Gutenberg has been at the "e-text" business since 1971, when its founder Michael Hart was given what was then $1 million worth of operator computer time on a mainframe at the University of Illinois. "... Those operators were encouraged to do whatever they wanted with that fortune in 'spare time' in the hopes they would learn more for their job proficiency," explains the Project Gutenberg Web site, http://www.gutenberg.net .
Hart decided he could best repay that value by trying to store the information found in libraries on computer. He started with the Declaration of Independence.
Now the project coordinates volunteers as they scan and key in text, mostly from great works of literature in the public domain. Thus, very few of the works have any copyright issues associated with them. You can post the texts on your own Web site, forward them to friends or print as many copies as you like.
The files are stored in plain "vanilla" ASCII text. The advantage of this formatting is that virtually any computer ever invented can read it. File formats, operating systems and computer programs come and go, but ASCII is always there. The disadvantage is that there's no formatting at all -- no bolds or italic typefaces, no typographical quotation marks or dashes, and none of the other typographic niceties modern readers have become accustomed to.
So each file is saved on several FTP servers across the country, available in the plain text format and in zipped format, which is simply a standard compression of the text file. Even the largest of these files are reasonable downloads on 14.4 kbs modems.
All of this fits with the Project Gutenberg philosophy of giving this material to the widest possible audience in the easiest possible format. We are all the beneficiaries.
Project Gutenberg is a researcher's dream, a reader's haven, a virtual library of hundreds of titles. Whether you're looking for just the right Bible verse or that line from "Hamlet" or "Walden," it's there.
Kyle Eller is an experienced Webmaster and a reporter, columnist and reviewer for the Budgeteer News. You can reach him at (218) 723-1207 or via e-mail at kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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