Last summer I was looking for a particular book. I couldn’t find it in any library in my State. Went interlibrary loans and found one copy at the library of Congress. Only one copy in the whole country. One of the best stories I ever [heard] about this is one when one of my professors was working on a trash pile of papyrus sheets and came across one that said [it] was the works of Meander. He went through that pile of papyrus with a fine tooth comb. He didn’t find anything but that single piece. He said that it felt as though he was looking across the centuries and saying, “Somewhere out there are the works of Meander.” [Friends,] this is how things get lost forever.
Today, there are thousands of important books that will likely never share that fate as long as civilization lasts, because they were digitized and sent all over the world. Many of these books were first put online by Project Gutenberg. And many of the Project Gutenberg texts are online thanks to the work of David Reed.
I scanned and released Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and hardly a day goes by when I don’t get an email from someone thanking me for releasing it on the web. At one site I know that it has been downloaded 1800+ times in all six volumes.
In the mid-1990s, Project Gutenberg had an outlandish-sounding goal: to make 10,000 books freely available online by the start of the 21st century. They’d only managed to put a couple hundred online by then. Authors like Clifford Stoll were skeptical that they, or anyone else, would ever reach such a goal.
But Gutenberg was soon publishing more and more texts every month, at an ever-increasing pace. Lots of those texts had David Reed’s name on them. Working persistently with his own scanner, well before the era of well-funded mass digitization, he digitized and proofread long works that few other people at the time would have taken on: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; Shakespeare’s First Folio; Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews; Frazer’s Golden Bough; Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He also scanned numerous works weighty and light from authors like Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Frost, James Joyce, and the US government.
Some critics in academia complained that the books David and others put up for Gutenberg were not up to the standards of scholarly editions. David didn’t begrudge the work of scholars, but he wanted to put up more works, more quickly, to reach a broader audience. As he put it in 1999:
[I] think that [it's] important to remember that we do all this work because we like to read and we like to share our discoveries with others…. I see no reason why the text specialists can’t have the specialist collections and the general people (like myself) have the general collections. There is room enough on the web for all of us. The real enemy are those who want to lock up all the books in the world. The real enemy are those who don’t read a single book.
David was fighting another enemy besides illiteracy, one closer to home. He had diabetes, and in the last few years of his life his health slowly worsened from complications of that disease. He didn’t mention it in this post (nor, as far as I can remember, in any of the posts he made to the Book People mailing list, from which these quotations are taken). But even while his health was failing, he continued to put books online, like this emergency childbirth manual that was posted this past October. He was working to fulfill a dream that he described back in his 1999 post:
I dream of the day when we have 50,000 and 100,000 etext libraries on the web. Where there are 100 new etexts being released a week or every couple of days. When I can’t keep up with reading every etext that pops up on the Online Book Page or that Project Gutenberg releases. . I appreciate all the work that you are all doing. I love reading the work that you are all doing.
David died on April 21, 2009, according to the email his son Chris sent to David’s contacts list. By then, Google Books and the Internet Archive’s book collection had made over 1 million books freely available online, the various Gutenberg projects had posted just over 30,000 books, and many smaller projects had posted numerous unique titles as well. He lived long enough to see his dream come true, thanks in part to his own pioneering work and dedication.
I have dedicated etexts in honor of my daughter, my sons, my wife, parents and in honor of my companies I work for, even in honor of myself.
Out there all over the Net, in millions of replicas, are the works of David Reed, transcribing many of the great authors that have also passed on. In some sense, all of those works are dedicated to him. Through them, I hope his name lives on for generations to come.