A Novel Solution

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The burgeoning world of ebooks

'Socialism', we're told, 'will never work. Everyone's too greedy to work together for the common good.' It's a common argument and we've probably all had it thrown at us numerous times. So it's pleasing that there are a good number of examples of people working collectively to help disprove it.

Aside from the examples of solidarity and struggle that we would all answer this argument with, there are also examples of collective work on the internet that show people doing huge amounts of work for no personal gain, purely in the interests of other internet users.

One such example mentioned previously in this column is the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA), a huge collection of documents and books transcribed and formatted for the web with purely voluntary labour.

I'm very excited though by a website I have rediscovered recently. Project Gutenberg describes itself as the 'first and largest single collection of free electronic books' online. These electronic books, (or ebooks) are not vanity publishing either. Rather there are hundreds upon hundreds of transcripts of novels and reference books to download and read.

Now don't be disheartened by the fact that their search engine throws up nothing by Lenin or Trotsky - these texts are amply provided for in the MIA anyway. A quick search for the word socialism did throw up a couple of finds, including Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man Under Socialism. The website only has projects in the public domain - so don't expect to find the latest Tom Clancy blockbuster.

According to the site, the volunteers who work on the books have lots of leeway about which books they choose. 'Everyone is welcome to contribute to Project Gutenberg... there are no dues, no membership requirements: and still only the most general guidelines to making ebooks for Project Gutenberg.'

While anyone can contribute, the project does check and proofread the work, so you can be sure that you are getting a good version - they call it 'distributed proofreading' - a bit like the science projects that download small chunks of data to be analysed by individual PCs running a screensaver as part of a larger project.

Michael Hart, the founder of the site, apparently hopes to 'change the world through ebooks', and while you might scoff at the method, the results are impressive. Currently Project Gutenburg has over 14,000 titles prepared in over a dozen languages. It hopes to have over a million titles available by 2015. On a monthly basis it claims over 2,000 people will do some work for the project.

It's unlikely that the written and printed word will be overcome any time soon by electronic versions of books. But the increasing use of portable computing technology, laptops and personal computers (PDAs) in particular means that more and more ebooks are being sold and downloaded.

After all, you can store more electronic novels on a small memory chip than you could possible carry in paper form. It's also true that electronic books are much easier to search and copy quotes from - another good use for Project Gutenburg's texts.

On the subject of voluntary projects, it's worth readers looking at and getting involved in 'Wikipedia - the free encyclopedia', a free-content encyclopedia in many languages that anyone can be part of editing. While at first this seems unlikely to provide accurate or comprehensive results, it works surprisingly well, particularly if you want to get a generalised idea about a subject you know little about.

The articles work by linking particular words in articles to other articles. So an article about Berlin might mention Rosa Luxemburg, which will be cross-linked to an article about her. Be warned, you can spend hours in there.