Once upon a time…


While working on a presentation I’m giving to colleagues tomorrow about open access and REF 2021, I fell down something of an Internet rabbit hole looking for a nice image I could use on a slide. I spent a happy couple of minutes delighting in images of the main library at the University of Cambridge and started to wonder if in 200 years time we’d be getting this excited about ebooks. Yes, that is the way the mind of this Electronic Resources Librarian works.

At this point, I realised that I have a gap in my knowledge (again, I am a librarian; this comes with the territory): I had no idea how, or when, electronic books became A Thing. It seems this actually not as simple to establish, but thanks to some speedy research this afternoon I know a little more. When the first ebook appeared on the scene varies from source to source – this would be a nightmare literature review in a real-life situation! – with one source telling me that the first electronic book appeared in 1993 (on CD-ROM). This seemed altogether too recent for my liking, given what I know about electronic publishing in general. A more likely origin, I suspect, is probably the establishment of Project Gutenberg, whose founder, Michael Hart, is said to have invented the ebook in 1971. In a case of “being in the right place at the right time” in a computer lab at the University of Illinois, the ebook was born. His philosophy was relatively simple: that “the greatest value created by computers but the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was stored in our libraries” It’s over 20 years old but this essay explains how it all began.


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