The Internet has brought the world many things, but one of the things that really stands out is making the world’s culture more accessible to the population. Projects that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago are now being accomplished in the blink of an eye. Google Books is legally scanning every book they can get their hands on and the Internet Archive is digitizing every public domain movie, song, book, and webpage.
But when it comes to books, one of the major players is Project Gutenberg. With an army of volunteers scanning, proofreading, and editing public domain works, being able to discover obscure works of literature is now easier than ever. Sites like Project Gutenberg, which has over 45,000 books on offer (at the time of writing), will ensure that no book will ever truly disappear. Whoever out there in the world who wants a copy of something will always be able to find it.
Johannes Gutenberg - Who Was He & Why Is He Important?
Until the 15th century, making books and other printed texts was a very laborious labor-intensive affair. The books were mostly Bibles which were individually hand-written by monks, and therefore slow to finish. No other form of book production was possible.
Therefore a book before the 15th century was considered a true work of art, but any form of mass production was impossible. But many people in this time period were illiterate, with the handwritten Bibles remaining in the possession of the Church.
The possibility of printed books, and mass production of books finally came about in 1450 in Mainz, Germany. A businessman (some say a conman) called Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press, using a process called “movable type”. This meant that single letters could be placed on an inked surface and then rolled onto the paper in seconds.
One of the first things Gutenberg produced? Bibles. The so-called “Gutenberg Bibles” are worth a fortune today, but only a few survive. One is in the US Library of Congress.
How the printing press actually worked is outside the scope of this page, but if you are interested, there is a great article about the printing press on Wikipedia. And if you are in Mainz, Germany, anytime, there is a Gutenberg museum with the original printing presses. I highly recommend a visit.
Fast forward 500 years to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. eBooks are the hot new thing in reading, and the rise of the Internet makes distribution easy. So it makes almost poetic sense to name such a distribution site “Project Gutenberg”, in honour of the man who gave us the world’s first printing press, and in the process, gave us the printed book.