Friday, April 23, 2004

Digital Culture: Telling Stories

For more than 30 years, Project Gutenberg has been creating electronic versions of some of the world's most important texts. Its dream of building the world's first free e-library began in 1971 when founder Michael Hart inputted the Declaration of Independence into his computer -- all in upper-case, since lower-case was still unavailable. The library now contains more than 10,000 documents collected from the public domain, everything from the Bible to Shakespeare's plays and sonnets to the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

But before the original Gutenberg invented his press in 1440, most stories were passed down through generations orally. A new Internet project, Telltale Weekly , aims to bring this even older tradition of storytelling into the information age by making the world's great texts available in sound files: The Internet's first fully legal free audio library.

Founded in March by Alexander Wilson, a 27-year-old actor and writer in Chapel Hill, N.C., Telltale Weekly has ambitions as high as Project Gutenberg. To date, the Web site has made 23 texts available for download, ranging from the Epistles of John from the King James Bible to Jonathan Swift's famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal. Just as Project Gutenberg began with short texts like the U.S. Constitution, Telltale Weekly is starting by producing pieces less than 45 minutes in length. For the time being, the texts are downloadable -- in either the MP3 or open-source Ogg Vorbis formats -- for prices ranging from 25 cents to US$1.50. But after five years or 100,000 purchased downloads, Wilson has pledged the recordings will be available under a Creative Commons Attribution License, which means anyone will be able to distribute the recordings as long as there is proper attribution. The money made in each of the recordings' first five years will be used to pay for the recording of more "e-books on tape."

Recently, Project Gutenberg began experimenting with computer-generated audio versions of its books, but Wilson says Telltale Weekly -- which he hopes will attract professional voice actors -- is a better, if more time-consuming, project. "Text-to-voice programs are practical for some purposes," he told The New York Times. "But few people would choose to listen to them for pleasure."

[Originally in the National Post]

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