Long before the Kindle, Nook or iPhone, there was Michael S. Hart and his Project Gutenberg, a network of volunteers dedicated to providing free online access to as many books as they could.
Hart, who is also considered the founder of the e-book, died Tuesday at his Illinois home, said Stephanie Gabel of Renner-Wikoff Chapel and Crematory in Urbana. He was 64. Gabel did not know the cause of death.
Hart was a University of Illinois student when he founded Project Gutenberg 40 years ago.
Hart often said he got started in 1971 by typing the text of Declaration of Independence into a computer network that he and about 100 others had access to. In an interview last year, he said the project and a variety of partners it works with have made more than 100,000 books available for free online.
His obituary posted on Project Gutenberg's website said Hart worked as an adjunct professor — someone who works without tenure and has to effectively be rehired ever year. But in interviews over the years, he and friends made clear the project was his life's work and joy.
"I get little notes in the email, saying 'Hey! I just (found) Project Gutenberg, and this is great stuff," Hart told WILL radio in Urbana in a 2003 interview. "You get people that (it) just tickles their fancy, and they just read and read and read, and they're so happy about it."
Hart was born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1947, and grew up in Urbana. He served in the U.S. Army before graduating from the university with a liberal arts degree.
Books added to Project Gutenberg initially had to be typed by Hart and others into computers for distribution. The project has sometimes been criticized for errors and typographical mistakes.
Hart said he just wanted to distribute as many books as possible.
"This mission is, as much as possible, to encourage all those who are interested in making eBooks and helping to give them away," Hart wrote on the project's website, then later noted: "Project Gutenberg is not in the business of establishing standards."