Monday, 26 September 2011

The Bible, Jane Austen, Stanford University, Voltaire, Project Gutenberg and Social Media – what do they have in common?

Throughout time we have been writing, collating our thoughts onto material as a record for the future ... these were not very easy to transport nor made to last with the rampages of climatic conditions, wear and tear etc.

Medieval University class (1350s) by
Laurentius de Voltolina, on parchment
People still gathered to exchange ideas and it is surprising that so many written thoughts have remained in existence for each successive generation to read and study.

Clay tablets were replaced by papyrus scrolls, parchment was then used before the printing press (+/- 1450) with paper (pulped rags were used for 2,000 years, until the process of pulping wood fibres was developed (1844), which we mainly use today)  lowered the cost, enabling the mass exchange of information and contributing to significant cultural shifts.

Hemp Wrapping Paper, China:
circa 100 BC
All progress, George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) remarked, “depends on the unreasonable man” ... and by his own admission Michael Stern Hart (1947 – 2011) pioneer of e-books and founder of Project Gutenberg, was such a man.

Who would have thought a visit to the local shop in 1971, where he was given a free parchment copy of The Declaration of Independence, would lead to that Eureka moment, as he described it ... with Project Gutenberg being born ...

.... he had access to one of the first computers at Urbana University (a small university specialising in the liberal arts) , where his parents worked as professors of Mathematics and Shakespeare respectively; it was here that he decided to type up the Declaration of Independence to be stored online at one of the first computer nodes.

Michael Hart (L) and Gregory Newby
of Project Gutenberg, 2006
For years many people thought he was mad, as he laboriously typed up the Bible, works by Jane Austen, Plato, Shakespeare, Tolstoy ... he never finished his degree.  He sacrificed everything for his passion – he lived simply (used a bicycle with a cart), worked hard, and when he fell ill he treated himself with home remedies, rather than expensive medicines.

By 1987 he had typed out 313 “great books” – and then that shift occurred ... technology, in the shape of scanning, software, computer memory and the internet caught up with the scale of his ambition.  By June this year there were some 36,000 free electronic editions of public-domain literary works ... which as some of us can attest are a popular and convenient source of reference.

With thanks to The Week (17 September 2011) – for the Obituary on Michael Hart from which I sourced some of this information and ideas ... and then along comes another site I enjoy reading: Brain Pickings ...

... which has a fascinating post entitled: Vintage Versions of Modern Startups ... Twitter, Facebook, Quora, YouTube and Tumblr ... I so far have only checked out the Facebook one – by Stanford University ...

Twitter – 1906 Felix Fineon – Three Line Novels
Here the University is researching and pulling together a snapshot of written data using new computer technology with geographical imaging to show the various intermingling and evolvement of philosophical ideas through their epistles.

Mapping this “Republic of Letters” – the self-defined community of  writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many other we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history.

The letter writers in the era that has become known as the Age of Enlightenment (1700s) come from a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking their finest “philosophies” across national borders and language barriers.

Republic of Letters map
 – Stanford University
Brain Pickings has various links to the subject and a short video (2.15) entitled “Tracking 18th Century “social network” through the Electronic Enlightenment Project” ... which shows some fascinating mapping images ... 

... while surprising the researchers that, three hundred and fifty years ago, so much information was circulating around the world ... for instance: how astronomical observations that had been written down in America or Asia could be seen to back link into Newton’s Principia ...

... another surprise shown in the video is that Voltaire communicated mainly with the southern half of Europe – whereas we might have thought that a main centre would be England and Scotland ...  but the mapping shows Voltaire’s disconnect.

Coming back to the developments of today ... the ‘anxiety’ of the loss of people being able to jot down or record ideas, compose our thoughts for our stories because we are becoming so technically oriented – which is becoming a handicap to the thought logic ...  that loss of process in working our thoughts out on paper ... the idea we wouldn’t have had if we weren’t writing.

The peace of mind in finding a pencil and paper – a napkin ... the back of an envelope – and then being able to note those thoughts down, which arose from the adolescent acceptance that we should write letters for social as well as business reasons.

Modern Book Printing –
sculpture .... commemorating
its inventor Gutenberg on
the occasion of the 2006
Football World Cup
in Germany
Stanford University highlights what we have known for years as we research the letters of the literary greats ... when we research people – we find they were writing letters everyday ... and that is calisthenics for the brain.

Thank goodness for the likes of Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia which seem to embody the mission of the early web: to serve as a kind of super-library distributing knowledge widely and freely for its own sake.

The times they are a-changing ... but it’s good to know that there are people who are still looking through the glass clearly at the value to be obtained from researching into the past as well as recording this information for us to wonder at and learn from.

What does the future hold and how will we be using technology in the years ahead – I am sure we won’t be losing our grip on all this knowledge ... but it will be the researchers, readers and writers who benefit most ... while we as bloggers and authors will be doing our bit at collating information and ideas ... now I know what my exercise is .. calisthenics!  I just need to stretch a little further ....

The Week - UK version

Project Gutenberg ... 

Stanford University - Republic of Letters Map and Research

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Joanne said...

Hart's passion for books is to be commended, painstakingly typing out 313 great books ... Wow! That's dedication. I love using technology, but will also never stop with the pen and paper note-taking, either. I always have a notebook with me, ready to jot down an observation or experience to later bring back to the keyboard and transfer to the digital age :) There's a place for both in my craft.

Old Kitty said...

... as well as those working in Archive, Record Management and Libraries - all help to preserve and protect these precious words! Take care

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Joanne .. yes like you I like both aspects .. I wonder if the youngsters will use both in the future?

It's interesting how we all walk around with pen and paper at our beck and call .. to ensure we remember things ..

@ Old Kitty .. you're so right .. those who work in the Archives, Record Management and Libraries all helping to preserve and protect those precious words - very well said.

Thanks Joanne and Old Kitty - good thoughts and typed up! Cheers Hilary

Karen Jones Gowen said...

The history of writing and printing and books is such a fascinating topic. Gutenberg changed the course of history and it's been changing rapidly ever since. The word processor turned everyone with a computer into a writer, and the Kindle made it possible for every writer to get published. It just goes on and on and who can say what it all means and where it's all going?

Short Poems said...

Great post as always, Hilary! I enjoyed it!


Friko said...

Although I am delighted that most information is just a mouse click away I still use books too. Memory would be a fine thing too.
With all this information so readily available we tend to overlook the joys of 'learning' things.

Chase March said...

Hi Hilary,

That is a cool story!

I know that I cherish the written word and am delighted that I can store my own writing and thoughts online, not only for myself, but for others to read as well.

I don't think we'll lose grip on knowledge. But I do fear, people will stop reading. Video has become too prevalent online and it scares me a bit.

I love text! Long live text!(whether it's on paper on the screen)

MorningAJ said...

I love that book sculpture.


A wonderful interesting post Hilary, very absorbing,


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Storytellers, before paper was invented they'd sit by the fire and tell stories, trying to outsmart each other. One has only to read Chaucer to feel the excitement of the times.

I love books. I'm so grateful they began putting these stories down on paper. What a sad world it would be without them. There certainly would be no internet.

Great post, Hilary. Best to your mum.

Linda said...

It is interesting how the written word has progressed throughout the ages. I wonder if it will continue changing as rapidly or if we will reach a technological plateau.

jabblog said...

I hope we will never progress so far or so fast that we lose the connection to story-telling, myth, legend, printed word - I think not, for while there are teachers of small children there will be an emphasis on language in all its forms.

Nas said...

Interesting post, I enjoyed it! Thanks!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Karen .. such a succinct addition to the post .. and like we all are: we wonder where it will lead.

@ Marinela .. many thanks

@ Friko .. like you I love going back to my books, as well as having info at my finger tips ..

But your phrase "the Joy of Learning" is so important .. if only we could spread those words ..

@ Chase .. many thanks - as a teacher you'd value the words both as a teacher and of the student ..

.. but for ourselves - writing them down is important ..

However - if we don't use our brains and only watch (or mainly watch) then will that ability to write, compose and process fade?

As you say Long live Text!

Cheers Karen, Marinela, Friko and Chase .. thanks so much for commenting .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Anne .. so pleased I put that photo in of the book sculpture -albeit it's for football!

@ Yvonne - many thanks .. glad you enjoyed it.

@ Joylene .. yes the telling of stories has tested the duration of time - long may it last.

Wouldn't it be terrible if there weren't books .. and again if the internet didn't exist .. the internet reopened the door to books for me ..

Thanks re my Ma .. she was peaceful today ..

@ Linda .. there's so much happening, I don't think the technological plateau will be reached .. but where we go .. who knows!

@ Janice .. you make a very good point about story telling and word of mouth which becomes our stories, myth, legend and books .. that we cannot deprive our children of ..

.. the emphasis on language in all its forms .. speech, sound etc ..

Thanks Anne, Yvonne, Joylene, Linda and Janice .. lovely seeing you .. cheers Hilary

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

As always, an informative post, Hilary! The Internet has certainly changed the way we communicate. I wonder what's down the road.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

An amazing and informative post, Hilary. Love this. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. It MUST be love to type out 313 books. I still love pen and paper, but of course use a computer too.


Susan Scheid said...

You've shone a light again on another fascinating corner of the world, present and historical. From time to time, in searching, I still come up with Project Gutenberg as the only source for a certain text. I'm glad to know its story.

Patricia said...

We are so losing our ability to communicate - we have never been able to successfully throw out the baby with the bath water so to speak.

60% of communication is the past 5 years we have gone from listening at a 20% level to about a 6% level.

I always take notes at lectures or phone conversations and email provides some good thinking time too...listening is involved in all those things too.

Fascinating info about Michael Hart.

I do not know what I would do if I could not read and writing is so crucial to my thinking skills..hmm pondering

Sorry I haven't been here so much, I am still doing 4 hours a day pain relief and it is working...tho the headaches in the evening are just wearing me out.

I miss my walking - soon, soon I hope

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Susan .. thank you - there are so many ways to communicate now - will that change us completely .. as you say we wonder what is down the road -

@ Teresa .. good to see you - yes I learnt on a typewriter too .. I guess Michael Hart typed the books out on a keyboard .. he certainly had some vision. We seem to have the best of both worlds .. pen and paper and machine ..

@ Susan .. just sometimes things pop up - I love the Voltaire video bit .. with his apparent disconnect - which I found so interesting to watch .. the video is well worth 2.25 secs!

Yes I've looked up a book on Project Gutenberg .. or was directed there from Wikipedia - and was surprised .. as I'd never seen PG before .. I read the book and was able to give it away - as I knew PG had it up.

PG has obviously been a valuable resource and it looks like it will continue on.

@ Patricia .. your insight into our lack of listening - I can agree with .. we don't listen - we hear what we want to hear ... sadly!

Like you - I find note taking an essential of life ..

Actually you bring up a good point about my mother .. despite not being able to read or write after her strokes - her thinking skills didn't diminish .. in fact she made an effort to keep her language skills alive.

I do hope you can continue on with your pain relief and then get back to walking again ..

Thanks Susan, Teresa, Susan and Patricia .. with cheers from our Indian Summer days .. the English are back talking about the weather! Hilary

Southpaw said...

I can't imagine typing out 313 books. the time and the attention to detail is outstanding.

Anonymous said...

The Internet is great in that it can capture letters and literary works (hopefully without infringing on intellectual property). Imagine monks and scribes having to painstakingly write great volumes of works. If they mess up, they have to start all over again. D-oh!

Talli Roland said...

It's amazing how technology can change things... and so quickly! But people will always love to write and read, I think, no matter what form it takes and the labour involved!

Sara said...


This post is amazing. We don't think about the things we take for granted and how much work went into them. I had never heard of Michael Hart, but I definitely appreciate his life work. It's amazing how determined he was:~)

Did you know there a movie about the making of Facebook. I've no idea of how good it is, but I think it got decent reviews.

I appreciate you bringing Mr. Hart to my attention. We need to know and give thanks to the pioneers of every human endeavor.

Happy day to you:~)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Holly .. it would be a labour of love, wouldn't it! You'd do it in lots of fonts and pretty colours .. ?!

@ Stephen .. well I certainly hope the copyright element has expired - it seems to have done so .. for the books in Project Gutenberg ..

I've often thought about that painstaking time the monks took to enscribe everything .. and if they mess up - help! Or mess a parchment up .. all that preparation time - it doesn't bear thinking about!

@ Talli .. I hope reading and writing will continue on - it will be interesting to see what's happened in 10 years time!

@ Sara .. I knew about Project Gutenberg .. and that it had started as a one man show (as I'd looked .. you know me - quizzy person that I am) .. but of course to see that Michael Hart had died at 64, was a shock ..

So I'm pleased you enjoyed hearing and learning about his project ..

I have seen the Facebook film .. personally it wasn't brilliant - and I can't remember much about it .. but it was amusing if nothing else - amusing in the Queen Victoria way .. not funny haha!!

Thanks Holly, Stephen, Talli and Sara - very good to see you all .. Talli and I are enjoying our Indian Summer weather! Cheers - Hilary

Arlee Bird said...

Technology has made it possible to amass so much history and data and the information keeps piling up everyday. It kind of makes most of our own writing efforts seem insignificant as it melts into the accumulation that is already out there. Who will remember most of today's best sellers 200 years from now let alone some of the smaller print run books and publications. Do we mostly write in vain?

Tossing It Out

Anonymous said...

Hi Hilary. Another interesting post. I couldn't imagine typing up 313 books. I can only imagine the many, many, many hours it took to do that.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Lee .. that's an interesting question .. are you going to post that over on your blog?!

Do we mostly write in vain? I wonder .. and who will remember us in years time .. who knows - we haven't let the genie out of the bottle yet - success beckons.

@ Susanne .. good to see you .. actually the thought of typing the Bible up would test me .. it holds a lot of information! Let alone the other 112! Do you vary Tolstoy with one of Jane Austen's novels ..

Cheers Lee and Susanne - thanks for coming by .. Hilary

Sandra Evertson said...

What a wonderful post!
Sandra Evertson

Jannie Funster said...

I like to think of people writing letters every day, and I guess they indeed did! Very "Jane Austen," I think. Funny to think it was not for socializing at first.How the world has changed!

I wonder if Voltaire did not like the Brits and other Northern Europeans much? May have been a romance language guy. He did make some frogs legs dance as I recall. And then maybe ate them? :)

Speaking of daily amassing of knowledge, watched a one-hour documentary the other day on YouTube and how each minute 48 HOURS are uploaded. Wow! Boggles the mind how Google can store it all.

hope you are well, Dear Hilary!!


BB sends mutch luvs too.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Sandra - good to see you .. thanks for coming over from Scarlett's blog .. nice to meet you ..

@ Jannie - I thought you were putting songs down? and in that vein enjoying the process .. good luck ...

Yes - you and me .. writing letters all the time!

I guess ... they wrote to inform, update and query each others' thoughts - with more serious intent than our social media today. Certainly the world has changed in that direction ...

Voltaire of course spoke French - but possibly Latin was still the main language, whereas England had evolved into Norman English - yet back then language was not as divisedly separated as it is now - and the educated spoke the languages of the time .. including Latin, Anglo Saxon etc ..

Good heavens .. each minute of each 24 hours a day .. 48 HOURS are uploaded - lots of great stuff .. TED videos etc and this Voltaire one from Stanford is fascinating ..

Google's got a few clouds - the rain absorbs a lot!!

Yes - I'm fine enjoying our Indian Summer .. good old BB - Hardwick is wearing rather .. I hope he lasts the distance and doesn't disintegrate on me!! Love to you and to BB bigsy hugs .. cheers for now xoxoxox Hilree

Unknown said...

I love the site Project Gutenberg, I have been there many times. And not only do they have the written word typed out but they have it orally read as well. I think the man was very self-sacrificing and I hope he is remembered for giving such a great gift to humanity.

Manzanita said...

We've come a long way, baby, even in my lifetime. I recall a kids printing set of wood blocks and ink when I was a child. Now they get computers. I was thrilled with my press, though.
I'm reading the book, The Long Walk.
I don't want to put it down. What a will to live he has. Thanks Hilary.

MTeacress said...

Wow, he was ahead of his time.

I like the word super-libraries. Wikipedia is one of my favorite sites, though many in the US frown upon it.

Arlee Bird said...

Yes, I think I will do a post about this question about writing in vain--probably in November though since I'm pretty full of ideas floating through October. You made me think a bit more about it and I think it would make an interesting subject of discussion. I'll link to this post when I do. I've already started the post and put it in my November queue. Thanks for the inspiration!

Tossing It Out

MunirGhiasuddin said...

I used to talk to a lot of Librarians when I worked as sales coordinator with Universal Publications. It was fun and my manager did not mind. She believed in keeping good comunications with our customers.
Great Post Hilary. Thanks:)

Mike Goad said...

And today Google books is digitizing thousands and thousands of public domain documents and making them freely available on the internet -- which has saved me a lot of time in my American Civil War blog where day by day I'm posting diary entries and letters 150 years to the day after they were written ( ).

Technology moves ahead and passes up many who have put in a lot of hours in the endeavor to share with others. Several years ago, I published a large (2 to 3 hundred pages) government report online when I was unable to find it anywhere except the library at a local university. Now there are multiple sources for that report.

Sue said...

Great piece Hilary, you always stretch me! I generally use a notebook and pencil in the morning and 'write blind' (ie without my specs) - somehow I think differently. Later on I use the computer to tidy up my ideas.

There are so many brilliant people around, and not all of them are academics are they. I'm intrigued with the Brian Pickings video -

Have a lovely end of week.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Clarissa - yes, you're an advocate of Project Gutenberg ... I hadn't spotted that they've made oral recordings too - thanks for that update.

Michael Hart - certainly had a passion didn't he .. I understand that funding etc and re-organisation within the bounds of the recent developments of the internet have secured PG for years to come: well I sure hope so.

Now that he's died unexpectedly from a heart attack it's a good thing that PG will continue on.

@ Manzanita .. we used potato prints! I'm sure we had wooden blocks too - but not sure about the printing set. It is a long way from computers isn't it ...

The Way Back: I went to see our Film Society film last week - based on a book written in 1956 .. where 7 men escaped from a Siberian Concentration Camp in the 1930s .. and their 4,000 mile journey south across the Himalayas ..

Wikipedia has an article on it and some links ..

I'm just glad you're enjoying the book, Manzanita, .. what a will to live - yes that was very apparent ..

Thanks Clarissa and Manazanita - wonderful comments .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Michelle .. yes Michael Hart certainly saw a future - thankfully for us he did ..

Super-libraries - well thank goodness for both Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg .. we'd be back researching through books etc. I wonder what the reticence is .. if you look at the information sensibly and if you're doing detailed research presumably you'd need to go deeper - but here at Wikipedia is a good starting point .. particularly for the likes of me - who just want an overview of things. I do take cognisance of where the information came from .. ie American v English .. because of the bias, sometimes (inevitably) shown ...

@ Lee - thanks for coming back .. and my prodding you has turned into a future post - it'll be interesting to see what we all come up with about are we writing in vain from your post. Pleasure!

@ Munir - maintaining public relations is so important .. and I'm sure a great many of those conversations with librarians were very rewarding.

Thanks Michelle, Lee and Munir - lovely additions to the post .. Cheers Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Mike - I realise I left that out .. I don't know much about the Google books work .. but it's interesting to learn that you're utilising it quite extensively with your American Civil War blog .. I'd like to know more!

Technology does move ahead rapidly doesn't it .. and again another interesting snippet of information about you publishing the report on-line - I wonder if they used yours as the original source?

@ Sue .. thank you .. writing blind! Now that's novel .. and perhaps could produce a novella? I must say I use both .. pen and paper and the computer .. I write better using the computer .. I'm not good at sitting and writing things out .. though I do a fair amount of it. Something technical/ if I'm studying ... then I often do both ..

Again you're right there are so many brilliant people who see a different approach to life ..

The Brain Pickings site is well worth subscribing to .. many interesting pieces of knowledge there - that I'd never find in other places.

The Stanford Uni video on Voltaire is very thought provoking and I'd love to see some others of the research they've done into letters of those days - Republic of Letters .. fascinating project ..

Thanks Sue and Mike for adding a great deal to the conversation - have good rest of the weeks .. Hilary

Marja said...

Writing and reading is a blessing and thanks for all the people who have written, recorded information etc. Amazing how technologies has progressed and we can access so much delightful writing (and bad stuff as well) Thanks for your interesting article and love the sculpture

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Marja ... thankfully writing was invented! but it is so interesting to see how we've adapted over the years .. and I'm so pleased people take the time researching .. as the Stanford Uni professors have done - gives us yet another dimension ..

Glad you enjoyed the post and that sculpture seems to have hit a spot or two .. thanks to Wikipedia for it.

All the best & enjoy your Spring! - Hilary

The Blonde Duck said...

It's almost sad to think that soon the printed book will be a rare obscurity.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Blonde Duck .. when that happens it will be very sad .. but I think for a while all will be well! Good to see you - cheers Hilary

amy@ Souldipper said...

I really had wondered how it all began. Who diligently went about making sure all this literature was available. Thank you so much, Hilary, for an intriguing description of how it all began.

Won't it be interesting watching it unfold from here>

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Amy .. isn't it amazing that one man had that Eureka moment - and at the time when computers were so 'open to exploration' .. and look where we are now.

Well - it will sure be a technology lesson towards the future .. which we need to be on - even if it's only to have some understanding of, which we can utilise to some extent - while others grasp the future with both hands!

It's a very interesting time ..

Have a good Sunday and week ahead .. Hilary

Anonymous said...

Fascinating information! You know, as a home educator I'm always hearing "have your children write every day" and I try to do that, but I've never really considered the benefits like help them learn to think! happy to know we are following in such distinguished footsteps!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Scarlett .. glad you've had one of those Eureka moments ... your kids must be thinking loads with all the wonderful craft work you do with them ..

I'm sure their writing skills are pretty good .. I imagine you're a very good teacher ...

Thank goodness for entrepreneurial thinkers - is all I can say .. I'm happy to come along behind sopping up some of the wisdom, rather late in life - but better late than never.

Cheers - enjoy your Sunday .. and the week ahead - Hilary

Anonymous said...

It is all SO amazing! And I'm so grateful to you, Hilary, for distilling this information for me. I love the Wikipedia. I'm always looking up people, especially from the past who have passed on. Now I'm going to go meet Michael Hart, whose passing I missed.
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets