A 12-year research project on ebooks (2000-12)

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By Marie Lebert, version of 25 March 2013.

I just completed a 12-year research project on ebooks and digital publishing, in three languages (English, French, Spanish), after conducting many interviews worldwide. This project was first published online by the NEF, University of Toronto, from 2001 to 2009, with my work available for free, and with no funding whatsoever. Burn-out followed. As a second start, from 2008 to 2012, Project Gutenberg released my work as ebooks, while I was working on versions in other languages. Here is my story.

[Update on April 2016: I went on writing articles on ebooks, and completed my research work in three languages.]


In 1998, after classifying and cataloging a few dozens of thousands of print books for several years in various countries, mainly in France (I am French), in Europe and in the Middle East, I decided to become a translator and editor, while conducting a research project on technology for books — meaning all 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 in Paris, under the name “From the print media to the internet”. When my PhD was completed in January 1999, with a diploma received in April 2000, I went on with the interviews I had conducted worldwide by email, interviewing the same people as well as new ones. Some interviewees became friends. A number of interviewees partnered with one another for new projects.

One of the interviewees, Olivier Bogros, a city librarian in Normandy, introduced me by email to Russon Wooldridge, a professor in the Department of French Studies at 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 is 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 one hundred interviews on the NEF in July 2001, after I translated many of them. 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, and regularly posted the HTML files I was sending by email: articles, in-depth studies, ebooks and a dictionary. My work came to be used worldwide, bringing people to other parts of the NEF. I was working full-time on my project as a volunteer, while working part-time as a 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 in this task, second because to find funding is a job in itself, that I would have needed to learn from someone who would have helped me to handle this part.

Internet users have always thought that my research project was funded by the university, because its copyright (Department of Language Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga) was on the home pages of the parts I was running (Entretiens, Dico, Dossiers). I was the copyright holder of my own writings. The very few people who knew I was working as a volunteer didn’t understand why the University of Toronto couldn’t help me by funding my project, or by providing help to find funding, with so many people using my work.

I handled the English and Spanish versions alone too, with some punctual help. The English translations of the interviews were revised by Laurie and Greg Chamberlain. The Spanish translations of the interviews were revised by Maria Victoria Marinetti. A few comments about my dictionary were translated from French to English by Russon Wooldridge. A book was translated from French to Spanish by Anna Alvarez. Books in Spanish were revised by Anna Alvarez and/or Alicia Simmross. I paid everyone on my low wages as a translator and editor.

Because of my financial situation, Anna and Alicia went as far as setting up fees that could be affordable for me. Marc Autret did the same thing. Marc is a graphic designer who made an experimental interactive PDF for one of my ebooks in English, with a reading experience on three levels. (As the links within the PDF won’t work if our PDF is opened in a browser, it is recommended to download the PDF and open it with Adobe Acrobat Reader.) On the one hand, I was thankful. On the other hand, I was ashamed not to be able to pay them a good fee for professional translation and editing, and for professional design. Unlike the professors and librarians contributing to the NEF, who all had good wages, I didn’t believe in the beauty of volunteer work (for others) within a network linked to a major university.

I came to the University of Toronto only once in 2002, for two days, at my own expenses, to meet with Russon Wooldridge in person. I also briefly met with another professor, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand. I couldn’t afford to come again. I participated in a conference organized by Dominique in October 2005 by sending a paper about Project Gutenberg, in French and in English. Russon revised the English version for free. At the same conference, a paper by Russon about the NEF and international cooperation mentioned me as a main contributor, without mentioning my desperate need for funding.

In 2006, Pascal Michelucci, another professor at the university, joined the NEF as the second editor, the first one being Russon as the founder and main contributor. Pascal added his name on the home pages of the three parts I was running, something I found both surprising and unsettling. Adding his name on the home pages of all the projects conducted by others has been his only contribution to the NEF so far.

Over the years, I wondered about the great university I was told about, and about the great network I was told about. In my case, the NEF acted as an open archive for the files I was sending, either new files or files to be updated. The fact I struggled financially while the network and the university were benefitting from my work never bothered anyone. Is online publishing only about posting people’s files, and getting all the credit for their work? When I joined the network, I was hoping it would link us (the interviewees and me) to a number of people working in this great university, for us to work together.

My dictionary — a French-language dictionary on digital technology for books and other media — became too big to be handled as one web page. I had to stop updating it, despite the fact it was useful to a number of users. I would have needed help to set up and run a database, without having to pay for it (again). A TACTweb database was not the right solution for a live project, and for blind users.

I also needed some legal help with a few copyright issues, mainly how to deal with websites “stealing” part of my work without mentioning the author and the source. Instead of getting upset and trying to fix things alone (again), I could certainly have handled these issues better with some professional advice.

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 in PDF (not allowed on the NEF at the time), and most of all deal with a publisher who would help us find funding, publicize our work, deal with copyright issues, and offer versions in other languages, while selling print versions to cover some of the costs.

I began to feel the burden of burn-out, and got sick in 2008. I still tried to finish my latest and last NEF project when I could get up. When I left the NEF in late 2009, after nine years of hard work as a volunteer, Olivier Bogros wrote me about his surprise I was ready to quit, and asked me to go on, as a volunteer of course. My answer was a polite “no”, sent from a bed, with an empty bank account. I also answered Olivier, a well-known librarian, that he was most 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 we have the poor. The rich have titles, monthly wages, institutional and financial support from their institutions, vacation time, and pensions. The poor struggle on a daily basis as volunteers, with a part-time job in the evenings and week-ends 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 they should enjoy the fantastic opportunity they are given to enrich their professional experience and their resume. But some of them decide to leave the academic world then, and to follow their own path to find decent working conditions and a decent life.

After having published my work on the NEF during nine years, with my work still there for many years to come, I also have a plea for the University of Toronto: to make sure researchers publishing their work on one of its websites get significant funding from the university or from other sources, or get actively supported in some way.

Project Gutenberg gave me some 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 is granted by 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 a few other times over the years. Given the topic — ebooks, digital publishing, digital libraries, languages –, Michael suggested in 2005 I could release my work as ebooks in Project Gutenberg. I accepted in 2008, and should have accepted much earlier. After sending the copyright permission letter to Greg 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. I didn’t need to code dozens of pages in HTML anymore. These ebooks were now available in several formats, including in PDF (a format requested by many people at the time), and could easily be downloaded by other digital libraries and by everyone, on any device (computer, smartphone, tablet, e-reader). Al also proofread one of my ebooks in English.

Some of my articles got published in Project Gutenberg News, Project Gutenberg’s official blog, with the help of Mike Cook, its editor. Mike edited the first articles in English, at a time my English skills needed much improvement.

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

For the 40th anniversary of Project Gutenberg in July 2011, I published a series of 45 articles in French in the literary magazine ActuaLitté, with the help of Nicolas Gary, its editor, and a series of 20 articles in English in Project Gutenberg News, with the help of Mike Cook, as a “thank you” to Michael Hart, who created the first ebook in July 1971, and 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 Henk Slettenhaar, a professor in information technology.

My search for funding failed in the United States too. In March 2006, I was granted a green card for “extraordinary ability”, based on my 20-year career in the book field, to be able to pursue my research work in California, and get out of poverty. But people still couldn’t understand why my current research project was not funded by the University of Toronto, and potential employers turned me down for jobs as a researcher, librarian or linguist. After trying for several years, and seeing that the funding issue would always play against me no matter what, I went back to Europe.

I envy researchers who have decent wages, who belong to a supportive team, who can go to study trips, 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 ten years ago, as well as working across borders and languages. But my experience in North America didn’t work well in the end, except with Project Gutenberg. 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 and projects, and in some cases realize them. The fact the whole project was available for free from the start certainly helped. The ebooks available at Project Gutenberg have also been used to teach and train a new generation of librarians and linguists.

As most of us know, free distribution of knowledge by researchers, authors, translators, and others, requires funding upfront. I still think that, in the early 2000s, volunteer work was fine at the beginning, for a short time. Many of us were starting online projects as volunteers, with another job to pay the bills, while seeking funding. Without some volunteer work, our projects would have never seen the light.

Why didn’t I stop, given the lack of funding? First, ebooks were a great topic. Second, one hundred people worldwide participated in this project. I wanted to finish it out of respect for them. Was it the right choice to go on anyway, while living with very little money? Probably not.

Another dream was to start a second research project on ebooks and languages, after completing my first project, and after finding significant funding this time, and the right organization to support me. I believe that technology for languages will merge with technology for books in the future. This might be the right time to conduct some research about it, and to interview a number of people working on plurilingual projects, including in minority languages. This new project could be published as a series of articles and/or ebooks freely available online in three languages (English, French, Spanish) if not more.

When I get better — the whole experience during these twelve years has had a big toll on me –, I will try to fulfill this second dream. If I find some funding, all the better. If I don’t find any funding, I will do something else.


Bibliography in WordPress.
Bibliography at Project Gutenberg.
Bibliography at ManyBooks.net.
Bibliography on the NEF.
Series of articles in English for the 40th anniversary of ebooks.
Series of articles in French for the 40th anniversary of ebooks.

[Comments in French about my work on the NEF]
[Entretiens] Comments on Le Livre 010101, under the subtitle “Commentaires”.
[Dico] Comments on Le Dictionnaire du NEF, under the subtitle “Ce qu’ils disent du Dictionnaire du NEF”.
[Dossiers] Comments on Les mutations du Livre, under the subtitle “Commentaires”.


Copyright © 2013 Marie Lebert

Written by marielebert

2013/01/18 at 09:00

Posted in Uncategorized