A research project on ebooks around the world

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By Marie Lebert, 3 September 2022.

My 20-year research project on ebooks around the world (2001-2021) was entirely self-funded with translation work. My project could only survive with the help of Project Gutenberg (from 2008 to 2012) and the help of the Internet Archive (from 2012 until now). All my publications are freely available in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive with a Creative Commons licence. Many of them are available in three languages (English, French, Spanish). Here is the story of this project.


* eBooks in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive
* eBooks in Project Gutenberg
* Articles in ActuaLitté



After many years as a librarian for international organisations in various countries, I decided to become a professional translator in order to have a more flexible schedule to conduct my research. eBooks were already a passion. I wanted to cover the sweeping changes brought by the internet and digital technology in the book field. My dream was to become a full-time (paid) researcher.

The first step was a PhD at the Sorbonne (granted in 2000) based on many email interviews around the world with authors, editors, journalists, translators, publishers, booksellers, librarians, webmasters, designers, researchers, professors, and more. As a number of people I interviewed didn’t speak French, I offered an English version of my thesis (also here) to thank them for their time.

I went on with my research, and was offered to publish it on the NEF (Net of French Studies), a network and website of the University of Toronto, Canada, after interviewing Prof. Russon Wooldridge, its founder. Russon founded the NEF in 2000 for scholars to freely share their work with others.

The NEF published my work from 2001 to 2009. There were articles, in-depth studies and a dictionary of internet terminology. I was regularly sending new or updated HTML files by email.

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 was dreaming of a paid postdoctoral fellowship. The NEF seemed to believe in the beauty of unpaid volunteer work.

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.

Most people thought my work 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 project. I was the copyright owner of my own writings.

I handled the English and Spanish versions myself, with some help from Laurie and Greg Chamberlain (who revised the English versions of the interviews), Maria Victoria Marinetti (who revised the Spanish versions of the interviews), Anna Alvarez (who translated an ebook into Spanish) and Alicia Simmross (who revised two ebooks in Spanish). I paid everyone on my low wages as a freelance translator.

My dictionary of internet terminology became too big to be handled as one very long web page. I needed help to create a database, but couldn’t pay for it. 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 acknowledging the author and the source. Instead of getting upset and trying to fix things alone, I would have handled these issues much better with some professional advice.

The people I interviewed 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 could help us to find funding, publicise our work and offer advice on copyright issues, while selling printed versions to cover some of the costs.

My confidence in the academia sank. I suffered from burnout, and left the NEF in 2009. Olivier Bogros, the librarian who introduced me to the NEF in 2001 after I interviewed him, 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 my NEF project, alone or with a team.

In free distribution of knowledge too, it seems we have the rich and we have the poor. The rich have academic or professional titles, monthly wages, and institutional and financial support. The poor struggle as unpaid volunteers, with a side job to pay the bills. The rich think that everything is fine, because things are fine for them, thus no hope for the poor.

I envy researchers who have good wages paid by their university or their research centre, 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. I tried everything I could, with much patience and persistence, but one person alone has limited power.

Project Gutenberg offered me its support at a time I felt as I was drowning, both physically and mentally. Everyone is a volunteer there. We are all equal. Project Gutenberg makes ebooks freely available to all, mainly books from public domain, but also (until 2012) copyrighted books after permission from the copyright holder.

Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg’s founder, participated in my project from the start. I interviewed Michael for the first time in July 1998, and a few other times over the years. Michael suggested in 2005 that I could publish my work as ebooks in Project Gutenberg. I accepted in 2008, and should have accepted earlier. After sending the copyright permission letter to Dr 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, and were included in the list of new releases. I didn’t need to code dozens of pages in HTML anymore, and I didn’t need to publicise my work myself anymore. The ebooks were released in several formats (including PDF and EPUB) and could easily be downloaded by other digital libraries and by everyone, on any device (computer, smartphone, tablet, e-reader).

From 2008 to 2012, I translated more ebooks into English, French or Spanish, leaving aside my initial wish to offer all of them in three languages, and maybe in other languages too.

From 2012 to 2021, I updated my work in order to publish new editions in three languages in the Community Texts of the Internet Archive under a Creative Commons licence. I could upload these new editions myself, and update them when needed by replacing the files with more recent versions.

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 begin a 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 were a great topic. Second, many people around the world participated in my project. I gave them a voice, for them to express their own ideas, describe their own projects and work with each other. I wanted to finish my project out of respect for them, with my work available in a language they could read. Was it the right choice to go on anyway, while living on a tight budget? Probably not.

Despite being granted two US green cards for “extraordinary ability” in 2006 and 2016, I was not able to secure a good job or a fellowship in a major university or research centre, although I tried hard for several years.

From what I understood, what seems important is to have a strong record of publication in high-quality academic outlets, and to have (or to be able to attract) significant external funding. I had none of those. I could only offer a meaningful research project having an impact on many people.

I have now moved to Australia, and was recently granted a global talent visa and permanent residence. I look forward to knowing more about the Asia Pacific.


Copyright © 2021-22 Marie Lebert

Written by marielebert

2021-09-11 at 10:02

Posted in Uncategorized