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Booknology: The eBook (1971-2010)

by Marie Lebert

Project Gutenberg's Booknology: The eBook (1971-2010), by Marie Lebert This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

Produced by Al Haines



Updated version, November 2010

Copyright © 2010 Marie Lebert. All rights reserved.

--- Marie Lebert is a researcher and journalist specializing in technology for books and languages. She is the author of "A Short History of eBooks" (NEF, University of Toronto, 2009), "The Internet and Languages" (NEF, 2009) and "Technology and Books for All" (NEF, 2008).

From 1971 to 2010 > Booknology, an ebook timeline

The electronic book (ebook) was born in 1971, as eText #1 from Project Gutenberg, a visionary project created by Michael Hart to freely disseminate electronic versions of literary works. 40 years later, ebooks are part of our lives. We read them on our computers, PDAs, mobile phones, smartphones, and ebook readers. [Please forgive my mistakes in English, if any. My mother tongue is French.]

July 1971 > Project Gutenberg, a visionary project

The first ebook was available in July 1971, as eText #1 of Project Gutenberg, a visionary project launched by Michael Hart to create electronic versions of literary works and disseminate them worldwide. In the 16th century, Gutenberg allowed anyone to have print books for a small cost. In the 21st century, Project Gutenberg would allow anyone to have a digital library at no cost. Project Gutenberg got its first boost with the invention of the web in 1990 and its second boost with the creation of Distributed Proofreaders in 2000, to help digitizing books from public domain. In 2010, Project Gutenberg offered more than 33,000 ebooks being downloaded by the tens of thousands every day, with websites in the United States, in Australia, in Europe, and in Canada.

1974 > The internet took off

When Project Gutenberg started in July 1971, the internet was just a glimmer, with a pre-internet set up in 1969. The internet took off in 1974 with the creation of the TCP/IP protocol by Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn. It expanded as a network linking U.S. governmental agencies, universities and research centers. The internet got its first boost with the invention of the web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, and its second boost with the release of the first public browser Mosaic in 1993. The Internet Society (ISOC) was founded in 1992 by Vinton Cerf to promote the development of the internet as a medium that was quickly spreading worldwide to become part of our lives.

1977 > ASCII extensions for a few European languages

Used since the beginning of computing, ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) is a 7-bit coded character set for information interchange in English. It was published in 1968 by ANSI (American National Standards Institute), with an update in 1977 and 1986. The 7-bit plain ASCII, also called Plain Vanilla ASCII, is a set of 128 characters with 95 printable unaccented characters (A-Z, a-z, numbers, punctuation and basic symbols), the ones that are available on the English / American keyboard. With the use of other European languages, extensions of ASCII (also called ISO-8859 or ISO-Latin) were created as sets of 256 characters to add accented characters as found in French, Spanish and German, for example ISO 8859-1 (ISO-Latin-1) for French.

1977 > UNIMARC, a common bibliographic format

The IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) published the first edition of "UNIMARC: Universal MARC Format" in 1977, followed by a second edition in 1980 and a UNIMARC Handbook in 1983. UNIMARC (Universal Machine Readable Cataloging) was set up as a solution to the 20 existing national MARC formats, with a lack of compatibility and extensive editing when bibliographic records were exchanged. With UNIMARC, catalogers would be able to process records created in any MARC format. Records in one MARC format would first be converted into UNIMARC, and then be converted into another MARC format. UNIMARC would also be promoted as a format on its own.

1984 > Copyleft, to adapt copyright to the internet

The term "copyleft" was invented in 1984 by Richard Stallman, a computer scientist at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who launched the GNU Project. As explained on its website: "Copyleft is a general method for making a program or other work free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well. (...) Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom. (...) Copyleft is a way of using of the copyright on the program. It doesn't mean abandoning the copyright; in fact, doing so would make copyleft impossible. The word 'left' in 'copyleft' is not a reference to the verb 'to leave' - only to the direction which is the inverse of 'right'. (...) The GNU Free Documentation License (FDL) is a form of copyleft intended for use on a manual, textbook or other document to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifications, either commercially or non commercially."

1984 > The Psion Organiser was the first electronic agenda

Launched in 1984 by the British company Psion, the Psion Organiser was the first electronic agenda. Later on, Psion launched the Psion Series 3 and Series 5, and the company expanded internationally. In 2000, the various models (Series 7, Series 5mx, Revo, Revo Plus) competed with the Palm Pilot and the Pocket PC. With fewer sales, the company decided to diversify its activities. Following the acquisition of Teklogix, Psion Teklogix was created in September 2000 to develop wireless mobile solutions for businesses. Psion Software was founded in 2001 to develop software for the new generation of mobile devices using the Symbian OS platform, for example the smartphone Nokia 9210, launched the same year.

1986 > Franklin launched dictionaries on handheld devices

Franklin, a company based in New Jersey (United States), launched in 1986 the first dictionary available on a handheld device. Fifteen years later, Franklin distributed 200 reference books on handheld devices: monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, encyclopedias, Bibles, textbooks, medical books, and books for entertainment.

1990 > The World Wide Web took off

The World Wide Web was invented in 1989-90 by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research, that later became the European Organization for Nuclear Research), Geneva, Switzerland. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee networked documents using hypertext. In 1990, he developed the first HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) server and the first web browser. In 1991, the web was operational and radically changed the way people were using the internet. Hypertext links allowed us to move from one textual or visual document to another with a simple click of the mouse. Information became interactive. Later on, this interactivity was further enhanced with hypermedia links that could link texts and images with graphics, video or music. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded in October 1994 to develop protocols for the web.

January 1991 > Unicode, an encoding system for all languages

First published in January 1991, Unicode "provides a unique number for every character, no matter what the platform, no matter what the program, no matter what the language" (excerpt from the website). This double-byte platform-independent encoding provides a basis for the processing, storage and interchange of text data in any language. Unicode is maintained by the Unicode Consortium, with its variants UTF- 8 (UTF: Unicode Transformation Format), UTF-16 and UTF-32, and is a component of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) specifications. In 2008, 50% of all the documents available on the internet were encoded in Unicode, with the other 50% still encoded in ASCII, a 7-byte encoding system dating back from 1968 for English and Latin, with 8- byte "extensions" added then for a few European languages.

January 1993 > The Online Books Page, a catalog of free ebooks

Founded in 1993 by John Mark Ockerbloom when he was a student at Carnegie Mellon University (in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States), the Online Books Page is "a website that facilitates access to books that are freely readable over the internet. It also aims to encourage the development of such online books, for the benefit and edification of all." John Mark Ockerbloom first maintained this page on the website of the School of Computer Science of Carnegie Mellon University. In 1999, he moved it to its present location at the University of Pennsylvania Library, where he is a digital library planner and researcher. The Online Books Page offered links to 12,000 books in 1999, 20,000 books in 2003 (including 4,000 books published by women), 25,000 books in 2006, 30,000 books in 2008, and 35,000 books in 2010. The books "have been authored, placed online, and hosted by a wide variety of individuals and groups throughout the world", with a number of books from Project Gutenberg. The FAQ gives copyright information for most countries in the world, with links to further reading.

June 1993 > PDF and Acrobat Reader, launched by Adobe

Adobe launched PDF (Portable Document Format) in June 1993, with Acrobat Reader (free, to read PDF documents) and Adobe Acrobat (for a fee, to create PDF documents). As the "veteran" format, PDF was perfected over the years as a global standard for distribution and viewing of information. It "lets you capture and view robust information from any application, on any computer system and share it with anyone around the world. Individuals, businesses, and government agencies everywhere trust and rely on Adobe PDF to communicate their ideas and vision" (excerpt from the website). Adobe Acrobat gave the tools to create and view PDF files, for a number of languages and platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux). Acrobat Reader was available for PDAs, beginning with the Palm Pilot (May 2001) and the Pocket PC (December 2001). Between 1993 and 2003, over 500 million copies of Acrobat Reader were downloaded worldwide. In 2003, Acrobat Reader was available in many languages and for many platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux, Palm OS, Pocket PC, Symbian OS, etc.), and approximately 10% of the documents on the internet were available in PDF.

July 1993 > The E-zine-list, a list of electronic zines

As explained in 1993 by John Labovitz, founder of the E-zine-list: "'Zine' is short for either 'fanzine' or 'magazine', depending on your point of view. Zines are generally produced by one person or a small group of people, done often for fun or personal reasons, and tend to be irreverent, bizarre, and/or esoteric. (...) An 'e-zine' is a zine that is distributed partially or solely on electronic networks like the internet." 3,045 e-zines were listed in November 1998, with e-zines spreading like fire. "Even the term 'e-zine' has been co-opted by the commercial world, and has come to mean nearly any type of publication distributed electronically. Yet there is still the original, independent fringe, who continue to publish from their heart, or push the boundaries of what we call a 'zine'."

November 1993 > Mosaic was the first public browser

Developed by NSCA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) at the University of Illinois (United States) and distributed free of charge since November 1993, Mosaic was the first browser for the general public, and contributed greatly to the development of the web. In early 1994, part of the Mosaic team migrated to the Netscape Communications Corporation to develop a new browser called Netscape Navigator. In 1995, Microsoft launched its own browser Internet Explorer. Other browsers were launched then, like Opera and Safari, Apple's browser.

February 1994 > The first library website

The first library website was the website of the Helsinki City Library in Finland, which went live in February 1994. From then on, more and more traditional libraries had a website as a new "virtual" window for their patrons and beyond. Patrons could check opening hours, browse the online catalog, and surf on a broad selection of websites on various topics. Libraries developed digital libraries alongside their standard collections, for a large audience to be able to access their specialized, old, local, and regional collections, including images and sound. Librarians could finally fulfill two goals that used to be in contradiction: preservation on shelves, and communication on the internet. Library treasures went online, like Beowulf, the earliest known narrative poem in English, dated circa 1000, or the original Bible from Gutenberg, dated 1455, on the website of the British Library.

May 1994 > The Human-Languages Page, an online catalog of linguistic resources

Created by Tyler Chambers in May 1994, the Human-Languages Page (H-LP) was a comprehensive catalog of 1,800 language-related internet resources in 100 languages in September 1998, with six subject listings (languages and literature, schools and institutions, linguistics resources, products and services, organizations, jobs and internships) and two category listings (dictionaries, language lessons). In spring 2001, the Human-Languages Page merged with the Languages Catalog, a section of the WWW Virtual Library, to become iLoveLanguages, with an index of 2,000 linguistic resources in 100 languages in September 2003, and 2,400 linguistic resources in September 2007.

1994 > Athena, a Swiss multilingual digital library

Athena was founded in 1994 by Pierre Perroud, a Swiss teacher, and hosted on the website of the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Athena was a multilingual digital library specializing in philosophy, science, literature, history, and economics, either by digitizing documents or by providing links to existing etexts. The Helvetia section provided documents about Switzerland. Geneva being the main city in French- speaking Switzerland, Athena also provided a section for French- language texts. A specific page offered an extensive selection of other digital libraries worldwide, with relevant links.

1994 > NAP: free digital versions as a marketing tool to sell print books

NAP (National Academy Press, later renamed National Academies Press) was the first publisher in 1994 to post the full text of some of its books on its website, for free, with the authors' consent, and to use the web as a marketing tool to sell print versions. NAP was created by the National Academy of Sciences to publish its own reports and the ones of the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. In 1994, NAP was publishing 200 new books a year in science, engineering, and health. Oddly enough, there was no drop in sales for books also available for free on the web. On the contrary, sales increased. In 1998, the new NAP Reading Room offered 1,000 free digital versions in various formats ("image", HTML, PDF).

1995 > The MIT Press followed NAP

In 1995, the MIT Press was publishing 200 new books per year and 40 journals, in science and technology, architecture, social theory, economics, cognitive science, and computational science. The MIT Press decided to put a number of books online for free, as "a long-term commitment to the efficient and creative use of new technologies". Sales of print books with a free online version increased. This initiative was praised by other publishers. But they were reluctant to launch similar experiences because of the cost of publishing online thousands of pages, problems linked to copyright, and the fear of free versions "competing" with print sales.
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