The death of books is much exaggerated

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The Independent Culture

NOT MANY years ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica only existed as a four-figure monster that drove aspiring parents into debt. So what happens when this cultural treasure turns up for nothing on the Net? Half the on-line planet stampedes at once to www.britannica.com, and the whole thing crashes for hours.

NOT MANY years ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica only existed as a four-figure monster that drove aspiring parents into debt. So what happens when this cultural treasure turns up for nothing on the Net? Half the on-line planet stampedes at once to www.britannica.com, and the whole thing crashes for hours.

Back to the bookshelf? Not quite. Once Britannica's free site settles down, it will come to be seen as a landmark in the steady shift of specialist publishing from a print-based to an electronic home. This has nothing to do with that dated 1980s guff about the "death of the book", but it does imply new kinds of partnership. The printed fruit - whether a few pages or a multi-volume text - will increasingly have to be plucked from the digital tree.

In another portent-laden move, Bertelsmann and Xerox confirmed this week that their joint plans for short-run or single-copy editions could effectively stop books from ever going "out of print". On-demand production, rooted in an electronic archive as vast as Bertelsmann's, may help drive publishing away from a "make then sell" to a "sell then make" model. Rather than killing books, this can bring all the dead ones back to life - if we care enough to ask, and then pay, for them.

The Bertelsmann-Xerox venture might perform miracles of resurrection for the more abstruse branches of learning, but it aims to make some serious cash - $700m within three years. So it's good to be reminded that some digital servants of scholarship still do it strictly for love. Project Gutenberg, for instance, has placed 2,000 literary works online for free. If you need (say) a complete Shakespeare but have no text to hand, go to promo.net/pg/.

Project Gutenberg depends on volunteers' enthusiasm and can only post works in the public domain. The result is a patchy, somewhat ramshackle electronic library. All the same, it's a delight to discover on the Net a tribute to classic literature so heartfelt and, well, quixotic. Speaking of which, you will find a full text of Don Quixote there - in the safely out-of-copyright Victorian translation by Sir John Ormsby.

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