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


By Marie Lebert, version of 21 December 2016.

I have recently completed a 15-year research project on ebooks, digital publishing and digital libraries, in three languages (French, English, Spanish), after conducting many interviews worldwide. This project was first published online by the NEF (Net of French Studies), 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 new editions in three languages. As a third start, from 2012 to 2016, these new editions were released in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive under a Creative Commons license. Here is my story.

In 1998, after twenty years spent classifying and cataloguing thousands of printed books in various countries as a librarian, I decided to become a translator and editor, in order to have more freedom in my work schedule, and a lot of free time to conduct 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 covering the internet as a major tool for free 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 and in person, interviewing the same people as well as new ones. 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, University of Toronto, Canada. 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. My work came to be used worldwide, bringing people to other parts of the NEF. 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 its imprint (Department of Language Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga) was mentioned on the home pages of my work (Entretiens, Dico, Dossiers). I was the copyright owner of my own writings. The very 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 — praising such a dictionary for the French-speaking community — were translated from French to English by Russon Wooldridge. One ebook was translated from French to Spanish by Anna Alvarez. Other ebooks in Spanish were edited 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 offering rates that I could afford. Marc Autret did the same thing. Marc is a graphic designer who made an experimental interactive PDF 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. I would have much preferred to pay Anna, Alicia and Marc very good rates for professional translation and editing, and for professional design. Good work should be rewarded with good pay.

I came to the University of Toronto only once in 2002, for two days, at my own expense, 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 remotely in a conference organized by Dominique in October 2005 by sending a paper on Project Gutenberg in French and in English. Russon revised the English version for free. 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. I was struggling financially while the network and the university were benefiting from my work.

In 2006, Pascal Michelucci, another professor at the University of Toronto, joined the NEF as the second editor, the first one being Russon as the founder and main contributor. Pascal added his name at the bottom of the home pages of my work, something I found both surprising and unsettling. He never replied to any of my emails. Adding his name on the home pages of all the NEF projects has been his only contribution to the NEF so far.

My dictionary — a French-language dictionary on internet terminology — became too big to be handled as one webpage. I needed help to set up and run a database, for the dictionary to be easier to update and easier to use, including for blind users, without having to pay for it (again). Sadly, I had to stop updating the dictionary in October 2007, despite the fact it was useful to a number of users.

I also needed some 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 (again), I could certainly have handled these issues much 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 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 burn-out, and got sick in 2008. As a passionate and committed researcher despite all odds, I finished my latest (and last) NEF project. I left the NEF in late 2009, after nine years of hard work as an unpaid volunteer, and thanked Russon Wooldridge for publishing all my files — new and updated — during nine years. Olivier Bogros 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. I also told Olivier, a well-known French librarian, that he was welcome to pursue any of my NEF projects, alone or with a team. All my work was available for free under a Creative Commons license.

In free distribution of knowledge too, it seems that we have the rich and the poor. The rich have titles, monthly wages, institutional and financial support, vacation time and pensions. The poor struggle on a daily basis 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 they should enjoy the great opportunity they are given to enrich their professional experience and their resume in an outstanding university.

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. This plea is to make sure that 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 offered me the support I needed 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 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).

It took me four years (2009-12) to offer more ebooks in English and Spanish, leaving aside my initial wish to offer all of them in three languages (French, English, Spanish), 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 Mike Cook, its editor. Mike edited the first two 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 (Michael Hart, its founder, created the first ebook on 4 July 1971), I published a series of 45 articles in French in ActuaLitté, a major French-language online magazine on ebooks and other media, with the help of Nicolas Gary, its editor-in-chief. I also published a series of 20 articles in English in Project Gutenberg News, with the help of Mike Cook, its editor. These two series were a “thank you” to Michael Hart 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 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 release new editions in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive under an international 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 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, because its imprint was on all 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 Europe 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 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 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.

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, and to offer ebooks in a language they could read. I also wanted my work to be useful to everyone, even if I am well aware that the ebooks translated into English and Spanish would have needed more professional editing. Was it the right choice to go on anyway, while living on a budget? Probably not.

When I get better — the whole experience has had a big toll on me — I may start all over again, with a new research project on professional translators, significant funding, and the right organization to support me.

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

Copyright © 2013-16 Marie Lebert

Written by marielebert

2013/01/18 at 09:00

Posted in Uncategorized