Help to proof-read books with Project Gutenberg

By Mark O’Neill

One of the reasons I like the internet so much is the instant access to whatever information you need. Whether you immediately want to get in touch with a friend on the other side of the world, conduct international business transactions, watch the news in another country or simply find a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, you’ll find it immediately on the web. So a project like Project Gutenberg fits in very nicely with why I like the web so much.

I am a huge book fanatic. I spend a small fortune on books every year and if you want to permanently lose me, throw me into a large bookstore. I guarantee I won’t come out for years! But I also have the “Fahrenheit 451 mentality” – that it is essential for society that books be preserved for posterity and passed onto our descendents. Copyright only lasts for up to 70 years after the author’s death whereupon they fall into that big snakepit called “the public domain”. So it would be easy to forget that some books even existed in the first place. If we don’t make the effort to copy and catalogue all published works now then who in 100 years or 200 years will even have heard of Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy?

So that is what got me involved with Project Gutenberg. Named after the famous German printer (in fact, the inventor of printing), Johannes Gutenberg, the project aims to digitalise every book ever published and make them available for free download. All the books have to be “copyright-free” and in the public domain so no Harry Potter or Stephen King will be there for a VERY long time (check back in 100 years or so). You can download the Microsoft Text file from the Gutenberg site or a HTML page version, plus the Gutenberg site has an excellent search engine plus a continually updating list of new books just released.

I am one of the many voluntary proofreaders on the site and I generally hang out in level one of the proofreading process (if you are also there, look out for the username sherlockholmes_emdw – that is me). That is where the book pages (having been scanned and turned into typed text files) are then passed to the level one checkers to see if the text came out OK and to correct any mistakes the automated machines made. This is generally the level which requires the most work as sometimes the machines that “read” the pages don’t recognise some of the words and so makes a guess instead. Nine times out of ten, the guess is wrong. I am currently working on a book where the machine missed out the first line on every page so I have to manually type the sentence back in. Some people find it tedious but I find it extremely interesting. It gives me access to literature that I would otherwise have never known about. Plus I feel I am contributing to society a little by helping to preserve its printed works for future generations.

If you would like to help as a proofreader, just go here, register for an account and then pick your first book! You have to start off at level one and can only help out at the next levels by checking a minimum number of books at level one and then passing some proofreading tests.

Even if you only check one page a day, that’s fine. Every little bit helps. There are even foreign language books so if you have a talent for being multi-lingual, I’m sure the proofreading community would love to hear from you!

Of course, the whole e-book concept is hindered by the fact that there isn’t as yet a universally acceptable way of reading e-books. I previously profiled on GAS a text reader which is quite good and of course Amazon, Microsoft and Adobe all have e-book readers. But at the moment, nothing is good enough which beats sitting down in front of the fire with a cup of tea, a blanket and a big thick printed novel! I live in hope that someone gets their act on and comes up with a e-book reader that everyone will feel comfortable using.