CHICAGO – Electronic book devotees may want to set aside some extra screen time this summer, as two nonprofits are preparing to provide free access to 300,000 texts online.
Project Gutenberg and World eBook Library plan to make "a third of a million" e-books available free for a month at the first World eBook Fair. Downloads will be available at the fair's Web site from July 4, the 35th anniversary of Project Gutenberg's founding, through Aug. 4.
The majority of the books will be contributed by the World eBook Library. It otherwise charges $8.95 a year for access to its database of more than 250,000 e-books, documents and articles.
But the book fair won't be the last chance for e-bookworms to devour works ranging from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to "Old Indian Legends," not to mention dictionaries and thesauruses, without paying for them.
Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart, who first announced the ambitious plan a month ago, said Friday the partners are on track to make 1 million books available for the annual fair's one-month run in 2009, with more appearing in subsequent years. About 100,000, he said, will be permanently available at the handful of Project Gutenberg sites on the Internet.
"We want to give the most books to the most people," the 59-year-old Hart said by phone from Urbana, where he established the project in 1971 after graduating from the University of Illinois. "It has been our goal since the dawn of the Internet to break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy."
The Gutenberg books, typed and scanned into computers by thousands of volunteers, mostly are those that are no longer protected by copyright. They include fiction, nonfiction and reference books and will be available for worldwide readers in about 100 languages.
While the commercial e-book market remains tiny, Hart said electronic books have "caught on without getting a lot of publicity" and are being widely read on handheld computers, cell phones and even special programs for use on iPods.
"These people that grew up on GameBoys — to them a GameBoy screen is the standard size," he said. "To us old folks, it's too small. But they don't care."
Based on fast-increasing demand, he predicted there will be 10 million e-books available by 2020.
"I've gotten notes from people who said they would have never, ever read Shakespeare if I hadn't put it on the Internet," Hart said.