David Reed: Some extracts from his life and letters

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.

David Reed, 1997

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.

David Reed, 2001

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.

David Reed, 2001

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.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
This entry was posted in online books, people. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to David Reed: Some extracts from his life and letters

  1. Anthony says:

    Technology has its advantages – we live in an age where literature can be preserved for generations to see.

  2. My condolences to Mr Reed’s family and friends.

  3. Camilo C says:

    If the volunteer proofreaders are the monks preserving the texts for future generations, then he was our abbot.

  4. Irina says:

    Some people live to die,
    others die to live on…

    http://everybodyslibraries. is a real discovery for me.
    Thank you.

  5. Laura says:

    He achieved a lot in his life. My thoughts go out to his family.

  6. Eliezer says:

    what a shame

  7. Sandy Doan says:

    Once again we see what a difference one person with purpose can make in this world. What a wonderful legacy we have from David Reed.

  8. Katie says:

    This man was an inspiration to all of us…he has made the world a better place.

  9. Tim says:

    What generious vision he had to see past his own illness and leave such a legacy.

  10. bluerose says:

    My condolences to the Reed family.

  11. abubakrs says:

    Thank you, Mr. Reed.

  12. Eric says:

    I didn’t even know who he was. But I offer my condolences and more importantly my gratitude, for making it possible for us living in remote locations to access these books free of charge. It really means a lot. Thank you.

  13. Mary says:

    A terrific achievement from a man who saw the force for good that the internet can be. Very many thanks to David Reed whose family, although bereaved, must be very proud of him.

  14. Dan Boggs says:

    As a new fan of project gutenberg I want you to know how fantastic I find this site to be. I appreciate the work of people like David that have opened up a new/old world of literature to those of us that simply ‘love to read’. Surely there is a place in heaven filled with scribes, amenuensis’ and people like David. Thank you.

    Dan Boggs

  15. cindy adams says:

    Thank you,David, for your gifts to us all! You are a blessing to the world community. You will be missed!

  16. LH Chow says:

    No words can amply describe my appreciation of people like David Reed — his noble deed has enriched the lives of readers all over the world. Thank you, Mr. Reed…

  17. Hurrah for David Reed, who’s joined the ranks of the beloved departed rejoicing in Heaven, free at last, and free to explore and revel to his heart’s content the full archives of every great piece ever written! Thank you for making so many of them available to us whilst here. See you there!

  18. Kirere says:

    “The genesis of greatness is on one of the greatest minds; the ideas they generate” We live to tell.

    Kirere Muigai

  19. Hesuru says:

    I don’t know who he was, but his endeavor has made possible for a poor student like me to have access to free books. Heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

  20. Mom says:

    I can no longer get to the library very easily. I LOVE being able to continue to read with Project Gutenberg and the audiobooks being read to me over the computer. It is wonderful! Bless you, David Reed. Bon Voyage

  21. Julie Kahn says:

    I’m a new volunteer on PG and this tale about David’s diligence and enthusiasm is awe-inspiring. To make such a difference – and in the midst of illness – is such an achievement. This is a lasting testament to his memory and how great for his family to know that he made such a difference on here.

    As for me – I came to this site via a search for some letters from Lord Byron that are out of print and completely unavailable – except on PG. Thus I have got hooked and hope to actually become involved with proofreading some more Byron letters or journals.

  22. Wm Ryle says:

    Our thanks to you, Mr. Reed.
    Our condolences to your family.
    You have left the world a better place,
    May you now enjoy the grace of Heaven.

  23. FreaLynn TA says:

    Thanks for guys like you.
    May your soul rest in peace, and
    My condolences to your family.
    Thanks for all of your attempts.
    You’ve made the world a better place.
    And that’s right. ^^

  24. Hola soy ferviente lector de toda la literatura,en especial me llamo la atención este sitio.lo escuche a travez de la radio; me parese una buena idea de poner al alcance de todos los cibernautas la literatura.por la anterior me gustaria se me informara como poder recibir información a travez de mi correo electronico. y todo el procedimiento para bajar los libros.
    por lo anterior agradesco su atención.

  25. Applechair says:

    This brings a tear to my eye, for I too share in his dream to spread knowledge and literacy to all that we can reach.

  26. I’ve enjoyed out of David’s hard slumber. Thanks for wherever you roam and rose above the thicket of this worldly splinder.

  27. Tammy Gardner says:

    My condolences to his family. I have found many good books on this site, including the Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire. Keep up the good work.

  28. nishant says:

    My condolences to the Reed family.
    I didn’t new him,but what he has done for this community,is great
    he was a great man

  29. PB says:

    I don’t know who he was, but his endeavor has made possible for a poor student like me to have access to free books. Heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

  30. Akhilesh says:

    I never knew who he was – but maybe that is just it about someone like David.
    To stay behind the scenes and keep everything running so that we dont know who he is.

    Truly, we have lost someone good this day. As an earlier comment said – “He will die to live on” , in every ebook I ever read

  31. Fadholi says:

    Death is not really the end of life, your soul and love to others still alive.

  32. dyvncwby says:

    he lives through the letters he’s brought to so many

  33. Richard says:

    Truly Ubuntu. thanks David Reed

  34. Bard Judith says:

    Living overseas in a non-English speaking country where few libraries or public bookstores carry English books, I have found it difficult to sate
    my reading addiction (generally a book a day before) without recourse to great expense (Amazon’s shipping overseas often costs twice to five times as much as the original cost of the book – for used books, sometimes ten or fifteen!).

    I discovered Gutenberg two or three years ago and fell upon it voraciously, determined to start in the A’s and read through – not methodically, but browsing, sipping, tasting, devouring as titles took my fancy – what bliss to have an enormous library of some of the greatest literature in the world freely available!

    I cannot say how much Gutenberg has enriched my mind, not to mention entertained my spare hours. Now, reminded that I have dedicated people and fellow bibliophiles such as David Reed to thank for this, I take the time to type out my appreciation.

    Thank you, David, and all the other lovers of words here at Gutenberg.org!

  35. J.V.O'T. says:

    I am truly saddened by David’s passing. I will think of him fondly in with every e-book, and offer silent prayer. My heart goes to his family, and friends, and indeed to the whole PG community for losing so valiant a warrior for knowledge.

  36. Dr. Ricky sanowara says:

    In my country its not so hard to find quality books. Books of indonesian authors or abroad.. But these books are sold at high price (for indonesian pocket) by local “book cartel” such as gramedia pustaka and so on.
    I begun reading english books when im 10.. I remember it was c.dickens’ oliver twist.. These books (untranslated) can only be found 2nd hand condition (junk store..) these “treasure hunting” been my hobby ever since (ive found germany war album dated 1938).
    Some books i cant find, i look for it over internet..
    People like those who works on PG are my heroes..
    Mr. Reed is a great warlord of the hero legion i admire..
    Goodbye mr.reed.. See you in valhalla

  37. Cristian ceron says:

    I only can say that I apprecciate what Mr. David did, because many times I had found that in the lybraries there are not the books that I was looking up to, and to found them in the GP for free, It’s like to liberate the people for chains and to be in a real freedoom.
    Thanks Mr. David, to help all the mankind and the Non-english readers.

  38. Tintazul says:

    It’s a privilege to be a volunteer at http://www.pgdp.net and http://www.pgdpcanada.net. Not only do we free works gret and small from the limitations of paper, we also get to work besides such hard-working, bright, idealistic, unassuming people as David Reed.

  39. Upul Fernando says:

    As a person who had the benefit of reading some rare books which are not available (in print) I am thankful to Mr Reed and PG for their good work. Hope Mr Reed will be happy and content where he is. He has done more than enough for a single soul. I am glad that world is blessed with people like him. May he rest in peace.

  40. Jin says:

    Thank you to David’s family for allowing him to share his time with us. Every hour he spent publishing was a gift from him and his family.

  41. Debo says:

    I’m from Nigeria and I’ve come to rely on project gutenberg for literary sources which in my third world country cannot be found in either local bookshops or public libraries.
    I suppose I never really stopped to consider the enormous amount of hard work and dedication that people like David went through in order for people like me to enjoy the privilege of knowledge, and I offer much belated thanks to him. His work was an inspiration to people across the globe.

  42. In the past few decades, we all had a dream. Online knowledge. Project Gutenberg is the accumulation of many dreams, but not many stop to consider the sweat and tears, the struggles that many people such as David Reed have endured for sites like these to exist. David Reed had his critics, yet he never faltered. He leaves a wonderful legacy behind, and I would like to extend my gratitude to his family with my condolences.

    If it weren’t for PG I don’t know what i’d do; I’d be lost. None of my website or blogs could be possible without the hard work and dedication of people like David Reed.

  43. Daniel says:

    To Him Who Best Deserves It
    A boat beneath a sunny sky,
    Lingering onward dreamily
    In an evening of July…

    Children three that nestle near,
    Eager eye and willing ear,
    Pleased a simple tale to hear…

    Long has paled that sunny sky:
    Echoes fail and memories die.
    Autumn frosts have slain July.

    Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
    Alice moving under skies
    Never seen by waking eyes.

    Children yet, the tale to hear,
    Eager eye and willing ear,
    Lovingly shall nestle near.

    In a Wonderland they lie,
    Dreaming as the days go by,
    Dreaming as the summers die:

    Ever drifting down the stream…
    Lingering in the golden gleam…
    Life, what is it but a dream?

    I warmly believe His to have been the same kind affectionate disposition towards us, Readers, like Himself. The very truth-recovering, reverent attitude towards Those Who Wrote To Illumine Us.
    May He rest in utmost peace, and we keep his memory green.
    Accidentally run against a few lines I can’t but hope to grace it with:

    A luminous fleet of furry clouds sweeping gently across the backdrop of gallant sky, which towers high over the woods and valleys, valleys veined with lovely streams and rivers, a-glistening in the sun; sky, which, an ocean of air in the high altitudes, derives all glory from the daylight, takes up vapour, brews some waters, sprinkles, a true husband, sparingly over land and other bodies, and dispenses lithesome, fleeting beauty till well into the distant evening. The bridge an archway of fluvial breath; countless bowers, a temple for gay promenaders, a verdant shelter for chirping warblers; and clouds the rugged dishes, looking down upon the stillness and delight beneath; all share in the calm festivities of a June afternoon.
    A bay of mellow blue cloud, losing its tracks beyond the notched fringe of the pine wall, kisses the white streak of a plane’s busy flight, overlooking the shiny bright haze of half-fog, half-mist further on to the north; the day is on the wane; in the opposite upper window, instead of a wonted pale reflection off the glass-pane (of the contiguous nunnery), before the always-drawn jack-towel in lieu of curtains, white, peaceful and gauze-like in this transparence, a beautiful light blue glaze cuts a figure from the skies and adds to the wonderful spectacle; the world of colour, pure and half-dormant, with sound verdure at its feet, and a heavenly nave, sunlit and glittering with soft radiance withal, in its heights, bedews lofty vistas, amid tree boughs and bank rushes, under the path and over a few flights of stairs, with tears of sweet longing, wherein the fond memories light up anew, though but partly, and faintly; wherein beauty is bound, of all dear visions which open so broad and clear; wherein a mute tribute is laid.

Comments are closed.