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From the Letters to the Editor column of the September 2004 Perspectives

On Accessing Gutenberg-e Books

Lauren Clay, September 2004

To the Editor:

As we celebrate the five-year anniversary of the founding of the Gutenberg-e Program, the AHA needs to address the problem of accessibility. My own experience trying to access one of these prize-winning monographs was discouraging, to say the least. As of this summer, only 40-some universities worldwide subscribed to the project, and mine is not one of them. Surprisingly, neither is the Library of Congress, where Gutenberg e-books cannot be consulted in any format. To make matters worse, I was informed that unlike almost all recently published books these works are not available through Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Finding myself unable to "borrow" a Gutenberg e-book, I tried to subscribe on my own. Those readers who still use a dial-up ISP can perhaps sympathize with my maddening attempts to make use of a free trial subscription at home, only to find my computer freezing on those occasions when I wasn’t booted offline unexpectedly.

Publishing on the Web should democratize access to knowledge. Instead, these works remain all too restricted to scholars at a small number of universities and to individuals with the resources and stamina to seek them out on their own. What can be done? At the very least, the AHA should see to it that several paper copies of each e-book be placed in libraries for distribution through ILL and should make this known to university ILL services. Furthermore, the question needs to be asked: if universities and individuals can access dissertations digitally and on paper in an easy, quick, and relatively inexpensive manner, why should the same not be true for e-books? Columbia University Press could surely learn a few things from UMI’s experience and success in this domain. In "What Is the Gutenberg-e Program?" (AHA web site), Robert Darnton argues that Gutenberg-e is "not a technological blind alley," but rather "a way of promoting the best in scholarship at a time of crisis." The AHA owes it to these authors and to the community of historians to take steps to ensure that this will truly be the case.

Lauren Clay
Texas A & M University