A 15-year research project on ebooks (2000-16)

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By Marie Lebert, December 2016 — edited in January 2019.

I recently completed a 15-year research project on ebooks, digital publishing and digital libraries, in three languages (English, French, Spanish), after conducting many interviews worldwide. From 2001 to 2009, my work was published online by the NEF (Net of French Studies), University of Toronto, with no funding whatsoever. Burnout followed. As a second start, from 2008 to 2012, Project Gutenberg published my work as ebooks, while I was translating it in three languages. As a third start, from 2012 to 2016, I updated my work and published new editions in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive under a Creative Commons license. Here is my story.


In 1998, after several years spent classifying and cataloguing hundreds of printed books in various countries as a librarian, I decided to become a translator and editor, in order to have more free time to start a research project on ebooks. I wanted to cover the sweeping changes brought by the internet and digital technology in the book field, with the hope to become a full-time researcher in the future.

The first step was a PhD at the Sorbonne University under the name “From the print media to the internet”. My PhD was the first French PhD focusing on the internet as a major tool for dissemination of knowledge, and the first French PhD available online as soon as it was granted (April 2000), with an English version.

After my PhD was completed, I went on with the interviews I had conducted worldwide by email, interviewing the same people as well as new ones. I also met with them in person. Some of them became friends. A number of them partnered with one another for new projects.

One of them, Olivier Bogros, a city librarian in Normandy, introduced me by email to Russon Wooldridge, a professor at the Department of French Studies of the University of Toronto. Russon had just founded the NEF (Net des Études Françaises / Net of French Studies) in May 2000, and Olivier was part of it. The NEF was a network and website for scholars and librarians willing to freely share their work with others. I interviewed Russon in February 2001. He agreed to publish my series of 100 interviews on the NEF in July 2001. A number of interviews were bilingual (French, English). A few interviews were trilingual (French, English, Spanish).

From 2001 to 2009, the NEF went on publishing my work online. I was regularly sending new or updated HTML files attached to an email — articles, in-depth studies, and a dictionary of internet terminology. I was working full-time on my research project as an unpaid volunteer, while working part-time as a paid translator and editor to self-fund it.

I desperately needed help to find funding, but was told over the years that no funding from the NEF or from the University of Toronto was possible. I tried to find funding from other sources. These attempts failed, first because I was not supported by the NEF, second because to find funding is a job in itself, that I would have needed to learn from the University of Toronto.

Most people have always thought that my research project was funded by the University of Toronto, because of its imprint (Department of Language Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga) on the home pages of my work (Entretiens, Dico, Dossiers). I was the copyright owner of my own writings. The few people who knew that I was working as an unpaid volunteer didn’t understand why the University of Toronto couldn’t help me to find funding, with so many people using my work.

I handled the English and Spanish versions alone too, with some occasional help. The English translations of the interviews were edited by Laurie Chamberlain and Greg Chamberlain. The Spanish translations of the interviews were edited by Maria Victoria Marinetti. A few comments on my dictionary — sent by users praising such a dictionary for the French-speaking community — were translated from French to English by Russon Wooldridge. (I was hoping to launch an English version of this dictionary, hence the need for translated comments.) One ebook was translated from French to Spanish by Anna Alvarez. Two ebooks in Spanish were edited by Alicia Simmross. I paid everyone on my low wages as a translator and editor.

I came to the University of Toronto only once in 2003, for two days, at my own expense, to meet with Russon Wooldridge in person. I also met with another professor, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand. I couldn’t afford to come again.

I participated remotely in a conference organized by Dominique in October 2005 by sending a essay on Project Gutenberg in French and English — with the English version edited by Russon for free. (I updated this essay in October 2008 for Project Gutenberg’s collection, with a Spanish version.)

At the same conference, a paper by Russon about international cooperation within the NEF mentioned me as a main contributor, without mentioning my desperate need for funding. Unlike other contributors, I was not a well-established professor or librarian contributing to the NEF on my working hours. Alongside my research as an unpaid volunteer, I had a part-time job to pay the bills, with low wages like many freelance translators and editors.

My dictionary — a French-language dictionary on internet terminology — became too big to be handled as one very long webpage. I needed help to create a database, for the dictionary to be easier to update and easier to use, including by blind users. As I couldn’t pay for a database, I stopped updating the dictionary in October 2007.

I also needed legal help with a few copyright issues, mainly how to deal with websites using extensive parts of my work without mentioning the author and the source. Instead of getting upset and trying to fix things alone, I could certainly have handled these issues much better with some professional advice.

Pascal Michelucci, another professor at the Department of the French Studies of the University of Toronto, joined the NEF as the second editor, the first one being Russon Wooldridge as the founder, main editor and main contributor. Pascal added his name on the home pages of all the NEF projects, including my work, something I found both surprising and unsettling because he never participated in any project.

My own network — the one formed by all the people I interviewed — has always been very supportive, year after year, during good and bad times. But some people expressed the regret we didn’t launch our own website, find sponsors (not allowed on the NEF), publish our work in PDF (not allowed on the NEF), and deal with a publisher who would help us find funding, publicize our work and offer advice on copyright issues, while selling printed versions to cover some of the costs.

I began to feel the burden of burnout, and got sick in 2008. After finishing my latest and last NEF project, I left the NEF in 2009, after several years of hard work as an unpaid volunteer, and thanked Russon Wooldridge for publishing all my files — new and updated — during all these years. Olivier Bogros, the librarian who introduced me to the NEF in 2001, wrote me about his surprise I was ready to quit, and advised me to go on, as an unpaid volunteer. My answer was a polite “no”, sent from a bed, with an empty bank account. Olivier was welcome to pursue any of my NEF projects, alone or with a team.

In free distribution of knowledge too, it seems that we have the rich and the poor. The rich have titles, monthly wages, and institutional and financial support. The poor struggle as unpaid volunteers, with a part-time job to pay the bills. The rich think that everything is fine, because things are fine for them, thus no hope for the poor. The poor are told that they should enjoy the great opportunity they are given to enrich their professional experience and their resume with their research published by an outstanding university.

Project Gutenberg offered me much support to complete my project at a time I was drowning, both physically and mentally. Everyone is a volunteer there. We are all equal. Project Gutenberg makes books available to all, mainly books from public domain, but also copyrighted books after permission from the copyright holder.

Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg’s founder, participated in my research project from the start. I interviewed Michael for the first time in July 1998, and several times then. Given the topic — ebooks, digital publishing, digital libraries — Michael suggested in 2005 that I could publish my work as ebooks in Project Gutenberg. I accepted in 2008, and should have accepted much earlier. After sending the copyright permission letter to Gregory Newby, Project Gutenberg’s CEO, I sent him the first ebooks as text files.

The ebooks were produced by Al Haines, one of the volunteers, and included in the list of new releases. I didn’t need to code dozens of pages in HTML anymore, and to send emails mentioning some new or updated work. These ebooks were released in several formats (including EPUB and PDF), and could easily be downloaded by other digital libraries and by everyone, on any device (computer, smartphone, tablet, e-reader).

It took me four years (2009-12) to offer more ebooks in English, French and Spanish, leaving aside my initial wish to offer all of them in three languages, and maybe in other languages too.

Some of my articles got published in Project Gutenberg News, Project Gutenberg’s official blog, with the help of Michael Cook, its editor. Michael edited the first articles, at a time when my English skills needed much improvement. Other articles got published in TeleRead, a major website on ebooks, with the help of Paul Biba, its editor-in-chief.

For the 40th anniversary of Project Gutenberg in July 2011, I published a series of 45 articles in French in ActuaLitté, a major French-language magazine on ebooks and culture, with the help of Nicolas Gary, its editor-in-chief. And I published a series of 20 articles in English in Project Gutenberg News, with the help of Michael Cook, its editor.

These two series were also a thank-you to all those who participated in my project, for example Jean-Paul, a hypermedia author, Nicolas Pewny, a publisher and consultant in electronic publishing, and Henri “Henk” Slettenhaar, a professor in information technology.

During the years that followed (2012-16), I went on writing articles on ebooks and languages, and updated my work in order to publish new editions in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive under a Creative Commons license.

My search for funding failed in the United States too. In March 2006, I was granted a green card for extraordinary ability to be able to pursue my research in the United States, and get out of poverty. But people still couldn’t understand why my current research project was not funded by the University of Toronto, because of its imprint on the home pages of my work, and potential employers turned me down for jobs as a researcher. After trying for several years, and seeing that the funding issue would always play against me no matter what, I went back to France to support some family members during their own hard times.

I envy researchers who have good wages paid by their university or their research center, who can conduct their research with some peace of mind, who can afford a quiet and comfortable place to live in, who belong to a supportive team, who can meet colleagues at conferences, who do not need to worry about money on a daily basis. I have never known any of that. To become such a researcher was my wildest dream all along, as well as working across borders and languages. Sadly my dream failed, despite much patience and persistence. I tried everything I could, but one person alone has limited power.

The good part — the one I should remember — is that, through the interviews, I gave a voice to many people, for them to express their own ideas, describe their own projects and, in some cases, work together. Based on these interviews, my ebooks have been useful to many people, including librarians and linguists.

One of my best memories is the experimental interactive PDF created by Marc Autret, a graphic designer, for one of my ebooks in English. Marc’s PDF — created with InDesign — is a work of art, and one of the very few PDFs ever designed to offer a “reading experience” on three levels. Marc participated in my project all along, first as a journalist and then as a graphic designer.

As most of us know, free distribution of knowledge requires funding upfront. I still think that, in the early 2000s, to be an unpaid volunteer was fine for a short time in order to start a new research project, with a side job to pay the bills, while seeking some funding. Many online projects started this way.

Why didn’t I stop, given the lack of funding? First, ebooks, digital publishing and digital libraries were a great topic. Second, one hundred people worldwide participated in my project. I wanted to finish it out of respect for them, with ebooks available in a language they could read. I also wanted my work to be useful to many people. Was it the right choice to go on anyway, while living on a budget? Probably not.

One day I may start all over again, with a new research project on professional translators, significant funding, and the right organization to support me.


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Publications in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive
Publications at Project Gutenberg
Publications on the NEF


Copyright © 2013-16 Marie Lebert

Written by marielebert

2013-01-18 at 09:00

Posted in Uncategorized