The Border and the Buffalo

June 1, 2016


Proofreading at Distributed Proofreaders has exposed me to a whole genre of books I never knew existed and which I’ve learned I really enjoy: first-hand accounts of the exploration and development of America—especially the American West.

Recently I worked on proofing one of these, a 1907 autobiography, The Border and the Buffalo: An Untold Story of the Southwest Plains, by John R. Cook. Cook participated in the slaughter of what is now believed to have been about 4.5 million American buffalo in a few years during the 1870s. Alarmed by the prospect of the buffalo’s extinction, several states, including Colorado and Kansas, had outlawed wholesale slaughter of buffalo. But not everyone thought that was a good idea. When the Texas Legislature met regarding a bill drawn up for the protection of buffalo,

General Phil. Sheridan … went to Austin, and, appearing before the joint assembly of the House and Senate, told them that they were making a sentimental mistake by legislating in the interest of the buffalo…. He said: “These men have done in the last two years and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary; and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but, for the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

I was aware that the buffalo slaughter had occurred, but had no idea of the role Sheridan had in encouraging it, nor that it was an intentional strategy to control the Native American populations and to open up the prairies for cattle. I had thought it was just the shortsightedness of individuals seeing the opportunity for financial gain and not realizing, or perhaps not caring, about their impact on the long-term survival of the species. They reduced the population of buffalo from multiple millions to what is believed to be only 300 in 1900. Today, with conservation efforts, the American buffalo population has increased to about half a million.

The hunters were after the hides and sometimes the tongues, which they dried and shipped east. In what appears to be an exception, Cook tells us about the Moore brothers, who “dried tons and tons of meat for a St. Louis firm.” In most cases, after killing the buffalo for their hides, the hunters left the rest behind.

But all was not wasted. When the army of hunters had annihilated those massive, sturdy creatures, the hair and bone scavengers followed them up with four- and six-horse, mule, or ox teams. They gathered up and hauled to the nearest railroad station every vestige of buffalo hair and bones that could be found.

I saw in 1874, the year before the great buffalo slaughter began in earnest, a rick of buffalo bones, on the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way, and twenty miles ahead of the track from Granada, Colorado, piled twelve feet high, nearly that wide at the base, and one-half mile long. Seven, eight, nine, and ten dollars per ton was realized from them alone.

I was also interested in the fact that individuals who had fought on opposite sides of the American Civil War, just a few years later, were working together in the American West. One group is described thus:

There were several ex-Confederate soldiers and Union ex-soldiers who had joined issues in a common cause. There were three school-teachers. All the party were native-born Americans with the exception of the two Englishmen, whose camp had been destroyed.

In the following tale they seemed to have more in common in the fact that they had had military experience than in the fact they had fought on opposite sides.

This book is written in an entertaining style. Cook introduces the reader to many characters of the time and tells interesting stories about them: the man who doesn’t realize he can use a left rear wagon-wheel to replace a damaged right rear wheel by turning it around—later known as Wrong-Wheel Jones; a horse that plays lame and dead and allows his owner to use his head as a gun rest; and Cook’s meeting with Pat Garrett, the man who later became sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and who killed Billy the Kid.

Through Cook we meet Smoky Hill Thompson, Squirrel-eye, Limpy Jim Smith, Wild Skillet, Crazy Burns, Buffalo Jones, Dirty-Face Jones, Arkansaw Jack, and Powder-Face Hudson, and sometimes we learn the source of their nicknames.

Cook also shows some regret at the slaughter he was involved in. Whether it really occurred at the time as represented, or whether it came to him when he wrote his autobiography some thirty years later, he reflects:

I then thought: What fertile soil! And what profitable and beautiful homes this region would make if only moisture were assured! How seemingly ruthless this slaughter of the thousands of tons of meat, one of the most wholesome and nutritious diets, as a rule, in the world!… Then a slight feeling of remorse would come over me for the part I was taking in this greatest of all “hunts to the death.” Then I would justify myself with the recollection of what General Sheridan had said; and I pictured to myself a white school-house on that knoll yonder where a mild maid was teaching future generals and statesmen the necessity of becoming familiar with the three R’s. Back there on that plateau I could see the court-house of a thriving county seat. On ahead is a good site for a church of any Christian denomination.

In addition to stories about killing buffalo, Cook tells many tales of encounters with Indians, personal stories of other travelers, and accounts of experiences while traveling through the American West in its last days before development. He provides an entertaining and insightful view of a time and place experienced and documented by only a few travelers. He wraps up one of his stories: “And this is just simply another of the many remarkable incidents that happened on the Range during the passing of the buffalo.”

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.

We are time travelers

March 1, 2016

detail from Allegory of Vanity, by Antonio de PeredaAs part of Distributed Proofreaders, yes, we are time travelers. We get glimpses of time. This is not just because we work on history books written in their own time. We also get a contemporary perspective on technology, science, medicine, entertainment, vocabulary, attitudes, personalities, language, and more from a different time.

Because public domain is restricted in America to items that were published before 1923, with a few exceptions, we spend most of our proofing time in the past. We’re not hopping back and forth between something using current vocabulary and spelling vs. something older. We stay in the past. As a result when we see words like burthen, intrust, inclosure, to-day, skilful, musquitoes, &c., we begin to recognize them as accurate for the time and see them as old friends. We know that a receipt is a recipe. We learn that children are encouraged to work on projects with knives, saws, chemicals and the like (see this review of The Boy Craftsman for a good example of that). Oh yes, we are in another time.

We discover references to some event that was common knowledge at the time a book was published, and that knowledge is lost now. Several books with stories of early US western travel refer to stopping at the farm of early missionaries, the Whitmans. And then they end that portion of the tale with, “of course that was before the massacre.” Apparently any reader of the time knew about the Whitman massacre.

On any given day, volunteers at DP have the opportunity to travel to many times and many places. To-day my choices include: Nagaland in northeast India, in ancient times as viewed in the late 1800s and early 1900s; Mexico in the early 1500s; Königgrätz, Bohemia, in 1866; print shops in the US and England in 1888; England from 1066 to 1154; English towns in the 1400s; Russia from 1903 to 1912; Napoleonic War experiences during the period 1804-1814, compiled before 1815, in a book originally published in 1839 that nearly disappeared before being republished in this edition in 1902. This example demonstrates that there are the times in the books and the times of the books—when they are about vs. when they were written, published and printed. In a single volume we can go back to at least three times: the time being presented, the time it was written—which impacts word choice, perspective and attitude—and the time it was published—which impacts typesetting, font, characters (like long s) and layout.

Come and join us. Where else can you make such a trip through time!

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.

How Does Your Garden Glow?

February 2, 2016


I love a garden. It touches and woos your senses. With sounds of rustling leaves, tools crunching into the soil, birds arguing over the spoils, bees buzzing the blossoms, rain spattering on broad leaves. Earthy scents, freshly turned earth, mint, broken leaves, flowers, spices. The textures of the leaves, soft, fuzzy, prickly, cool and smooth. Tastes … crackling radishes, firm tomatoes and squash, crisp lettuce and onions, freshly dug potatoes, strawberries right off the plant and won from the maurading and eager wildlife. You have to check to be sure the berries are ripe … often … wouldn’t do to serve others less than perfect berries. A well-kept garden is a beautiful thing.

Distributed Proofreaders has a discussion thread just for talking about our gardens. You’ll read what is growing in which parts of the world. What is failing and what is trying to take over.


Additionally, and more importantly, DP has books about gardening. Books for children, books for those wanting to start and for those who, for want of a better term, want to dig deeper. One of my favourites has to be one we are working on right now from the classic Mary Frances series, The Mary Frances Garden Book, by Jane Eayre Fryer. Not only does this children’s book have beautiful illustrations and a fun narrative, it also has an actual picture of a plain garden that you cut out. Then, for each season, there are additional cut-outs with tabs that you tape on the back of the garden. Then you can fold them over the plain garden to show how the garden could look in full bloom. The book tells you to not cut it up but to trace the pictures. Thanks to the modern wonders of the Internet, though, you can print those pages out in their full glory and color!

plaingarden springgarden
Plain garden Spring garden

This is just one of the books on gardening for children soon to be available on Project  Gutenberg. A few more ready for your reading pleasure are:

daddy_garden gardening4lgirls childrens_book_garden
Howard R. Garis
Olive Hyde Foster
Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick
Mrs. Paynter

Obviously there are also books on gardening without cartoon drawings. If you are  interested in how to make things grow, here are just a few:

Or if you are more interested in a scientific approach, try one of these:

The sun is rising, the birds are starting to sing … open a book and come walk with me in a garden.


 This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.

The life of a book at Distributed Proofreaders

January 1, 2016

This post walks through the life of a book at DP from its beginnings as a physical book to its final form as a beautiful ePub, using Uncle Wiggily’s Auto Sled by Howard Roger Garis, recently posted to Project Gutenberg (eBook number 50405), as a study.

Aside: I didn’t help with this particular book in any way, but rather selected it based on its length, language, beautiful illustrations, and wonderful example of a final ePub.


Selecting a book

The process begins when a volunteer (usually referred to as a Content Provider) finds a book they want as an eBook. They first have to get a clearance from Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation (PGLAF) that the book is in the public domain, and legal to be reproduced. and Project Gutenberg are both in the United States and thus must adhere to US Copyright law. DP and PG sites hosted in other countries are able to work on and host books that are in the public domain in their respective countries, but aren’t in the public domain in the US.

Figuring out if a book is in the public domain can be oddly complicated — which is why we leave it to the professionals at PGLAF — but a general rule of thumb is that if it was published in the US before 1923, it’s probably in the public domain in the US.

Uncle Wiggily’s is copyright 1922, so just barely under the wire.

Getting the initial text

After receiving clearance, the volunteer either scans the book in or finds the page images from Google BooksThe Internet Archive (usually through their OpenLibrary site), or a slew of other image providers. The images will likely need some level of cleaning to deskew or despeckle them after being scanned in. The images are then run through OCR software to get an initial, raw copy of the text.

Page images of Uncle Wiggily’s were obtained from Google Books.

Note that Google Books and The Internet Archive stop here — eBooks you download from them contain only the text obtained from OCR. PDFs contain the page images with the underlying OCR available for selection and searching. The Internet Archive provides an ePub format, but it’s of the raw OCR text — not a pleasant reading experience.

At DP, this is just the first step in the process of refining and creating an eBook.

Loading the book into DP

Once the page images and text are available, a Project Manager will take up the mantle and guide the book (referred to as a project) through DP. Note that the Project Manager may have acted as Content Provider as well, may have been asked by the Content Provider to manage the book, or may have found the project on one of DP’s internal lists of available scans ready for adoption.

Either way, the Project Manager will create a new project at DP for the book (e.g., Uncle Wiggily’s project page). They’ll fill in a slew of metadata about the project so that proofreaders will be able to find it. This includes information like the name, author, the language the book is written in, and its genre. They will then add the page images and text.

Unleash the proofreaders!

Up until now the process hasn’t been very distributed and may, in fact, have all be done by a single individual. But now that the book has been loaded and is ready for proofreading, many people can work on it at once.

The book starts out in P1, the first proofreading round. Proofreading volunteers can select any book available in this round and start proofreading pages. How they select which project to work on is completely up to them. They might browse the list of all available projects in the round or search for those matching a specific genre and/or language.

Once they find a project and click on ‘Start Proofreading,’ they are presented with an interface that shows the page image and the text. Their job is straightforward: make the text match the image and follow some basic proofreading guidelines. After they make whatever changes they think are necessary to the text, they save the page and can either get a new page from the project or stop proofreading. Other volunteers may be working on the book at the same time, each on a separate page.

After all pages have been proofread, the project is moved into two other proofreading rounds in series: P2 and P3. While any volunteer can proofread books in P1, the subsequent rounds have entrance criteria to ensure each level has ever-increasing proofreading experience and critical eyes.

The time it takes to go through the proofreading rounds can vary from minutes to years depending on the size of the book, the complexity of the pages, the quality of the initial OCR, and most importantly, how many volunteers are interested in working on it!

Uncle Wiggily’s meagre 33 pages soared through all three proofreading rounds in 4.5 hours.

Formatting: a bold move

Proofreading focuses on the page text, not how it’s formatted — that’s for the F1 and F2 formatting rounds. It’s in these rounds that all formatting happens, including things like bold, italics, and underlining, as well as marking poetry and other non-paragraph text for when the book is combined back together. These rounds are also fully distributed and, not surprisingly, there’s a set of formatting guidelines as well.

Uncle Wiggily’s completed both formatting rounds in roughly 12 hours.

Stitching them all back up again

Now that the pages have been proofread and formatted, they wait for a Post-Processor to pick them up and stick them together into their final form. The Project Manager may perform this step, or it may be someone else. The Post-Processor will do a wide range of sanity checks on the text to ensure consistency, merge hyphenated words that break across pages, and many other bits. They’ll create at least a plain-text version of the book for uploading to Project Gutenberg. Nowadays HTML versions are also very common and are further used to make ePubs for eBook readers.

Books like Uncle Wiggily with illustrations require even more care. Unlike page texts that are often scanned in at a relatively low resolution in black and white, illustrations are often in color and always at a higher resolution. Post-Processors will take great care in cropping, color balancing, and doing other image processing on the illustrations before including them in the HTML and ePub versions.

Smoooooooth reading

Often, but not always, Post-Processors will submit the books to what is called the smooth reading round. This is an opportunity for people to read the book as a book, but with a careful eye to anything that looks amiss. Humans are great at noticing when things are not quite right, and what a better way to do it than reading the book! If the reader spies something amiss they can let the Post-Processor know and have it corrected.

Posted to Project Gutenberg

Now that the eBook is completed, it’s posted to Project Gutenberg! Each eBook gets a unique number from Project Gutenberg which is recorded in the DP project record.

Uncle Wiggily’s Auto Sled was given number 50405 and was posted in several different formats:

Every book posted from DP includes a credit line in the text that recognizes the Project Manager and Post-Processor individually and the team at DP as a collective. If the images were sourced from another provider, they are also recognized in the credit line.

Uncle Wiggily’s credit line looks like this:

E-text prepared by David Edwards, Emmy, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team ( from page images generously made available by the Google Books Library Project (

Preserving history, one page at a time

As you can see, there are many different ways to help create an eBook as a DP volunteer. The best thing about DP is that you can do only the parts you enjoy and only as much of those parts as you enjoy.

Interested in helping a book on its journey? It’s easy to get started as a proofreader — just:

  1. Create an account at DP
  2. After you register, find a project and start proofreading!

Or you can smooth read a book without even creating an account.

Happy 15th Anniversary! (Part 6)

October 26, 2015
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Semper ad Meliora (Always towards better things)

This is the sixth and last in a series of posts celebrating Distributed Proofreaders’ 15th Anniversary.

Comic Insects cover

26000 Comic Insects, by F.A.S. Reid (1872), was posted October 1, 2013, as the 26,000th book. This is a collection of amusing poems about insects and features delightful illustrations by Berry F. Berry. The Hot off the Press blog post for this milestone, which coincided with DP’s 13th anniversary, can be found here.

27000 Number 27,000 was the 13-volume Storia della decadenza e rovina dell’impero romano (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), an Italian translation of the classic work by British historian Edward Gibbon, posted March 28, 2014. It was originally published in London in separate volumes between 1776 and 1789. Italian author Davide Bertolotti translated it to Italian, and his version was published in Milan between 1820 and 1824. See the Hot off the Press blog post here.

28000 For a change of pace, The Mystery of Choice, by Robert W. Chambers (1897), was posted as the 28,000th selection on August 16, 2014. This book is a collection of short, related stories with topics ranging from a murder mystery, to the ghost of a dark priest, to the search for dinosaurs — in short, something for everyone. The Hot off the Press blog post about it is here.

29000 Histoire de France (History of France), by Jules Michelet (1867), was posted on January 14, 2015, making it the 29,000th contribution from DP to Project Gutenberg. This 19-volume masterpiece took Michelet 30 years to complete, and it took DP over nine years to transform the complete set into a high-quality set of e-books — a tremendous accomplishment all around. Here is the Hot off the Press blog post celebrating this milestone.

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30000 As you may expect, the 30,000th title was represented not by a single book, but by 30, posted on July 7, 2015. They represent the vast scope of DP volunteers’ work, with books on science, technology, medicine, poetry, archaeology, folklore, literature, drama, history, autobiography, political science, and fiction, both general and juvenile. They include works in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Each of the thirty titles represents countless hours of work by DP’s many volunteers, who performed myriad tasks such as preparing the page scans, setting up the projects, carefully proofing and formatting the texts page-by-page to ensure their high quality, post-processing, smooth-reading, and verifying them — not to mention those who make all that work possible by maintaining and improving DP’s online systems, mentoring, and performing a host of other essential tasks. This Hot off the Press blog post gives the list of books, with links, for this milestone.

PG’s 50,000th title DP had the honor of contributing Project Gutenberg’s 50,000th title just last month, on September 17, 2015. This was, appropriately, John Gutenberg, First Master Printer, His Acts, and most remarkable Discourses, and his Death, by Franz von Dingelstedt. The Hot off the Press blog post celebrating this achievement is here. As part of DP’s 15th Anniversary celebration, a DP volunteer recorded an audiobook of this title for Librivox.

Thanks and congratulations to the entire Distributed Proofreaders community, whose dedication to “preserving history one page at a time” has made this 15th Anniversary celebration possible.

These 15th Anniversary posts were contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.

Happy 15th Anniversary! (Part 5)

October 21, 2015
15th anniversary banner

Semper ad Meliora (Always towards better things)

This is the fifth in a series of posts celebrating Distributed Proofreaders’ 15th Anniversary.

21000 The 21,000th contribution, on August 22, 2011, was The Pros and Cons of Vivisection, by Charles Richet (1908). Vivisection (experimental surgery on living beings) has long been a controversial practice. The author, a distinguished French physiologist, tries to “set forth, as impartially as possible, the reasons which militate for and against vivisection. It is, however, a physiologist who is speaking, therefore no one will be surprised that he should defend a practice which is at the basis of the science he teaches.”

22000 We go to January 2, 2012 — and 1901 — for the 22,000th offering, The Nibelungenlied, the great medieval German epic poem, translated into English by William Nanson Lettsom. It tells the tale of the hero Siegfried, who slays a dragon, gains a treasure, fights a number of battles, and wins a fair lady — thereby setting into motion a tangled and tragic plot that is famously the basis for Richard Wagner’s great opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.

Leaving the Ship

Leaving the Ship, from Crusoe’s Island

23000 June 5, 2012, gave us Crusoe’s Island: A Ramble in the Footsteps of Alexander Selkirk, by John Ross Browne, the 23,000th contribution. Published in 1864, this is an account of the Irish-born American author’s experiences in the Juan Fernández Islands, his stint as a government commissioner in California, and his life as an agent in the Nevada silver mines. The author’s sketches are included.

24000 French literature provided the 24,000th book, on October 31, 2012, Cours familier de littérature (Familiar Literature Courses, vol. 14, 1862), by M.A. de Lamartine. Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine, Chevalier de Pratz, was a French writer, poet, and politician who was instrumental in the foundation of the French Second Republic. He ended his life in poverty, publishing monthly installments of the Cours familier de littérature to support himself. You can find the celebratory blog post for this milestone here.

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25000 DP’s 25,000th book was, appropriately for the “silver milestone,” The Art and Practice of Silver Printing, by pioneering photographers H.P. Robinson and Captain Abney (1881), which was posted April 10, 2013. The authors noted, “The one defect of silver printing is the possibility of its results fading; but surely it is better to be beautiful, if fading, than permanent and ugly. It is better to be charmed with a beautiful thing for a few years, than be bored by an ugly one for ever.” You can read more about this book on Hot off the Press here.

Next: The celebration continues with milestones 26000 to 30000.

These 15th Anniversary posts were contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.

Happy 15th Anniversary! (Part 4)

October 16, 2015
15th anniversary banner

Semper ad Meliora (Always towards better things)

This is the fourth in a series of posts celebrating Distributed Proofreaders’ 15th Anniversary.

ABC Cover

16000 October 1, 2009, brought to Project Gutenberg ABC: Petits Contes (ABC: Short Stories), by Jules Lemaître (1919, French). This is a beautifully illustrated children’s book. Even if you can’t recognize a single French word, this book is worth downloading for the striking color illustrations by “Job” (Jacques Onfroy de Bréville).

17000 DP saw its next milestone book, the 17,000th, on March 4, 2010: The Position of Woman in Primitive Society, by British author and headmistress C. Gasquoine Hartley (1914). From the introductory chapter: “This little book is an attempt to establish the position of the mother in the family. It sets out to investigate those early states of society, when, through the widespread prevalence of descent through the mother, the survival of the family clan and, in some cases, the property rights were dependent on women and not on men.”

18000 The 18,000th book, made available June 15, 2010, is Area Handbook for Romania, by Eugene K. Keefe et al. (1972), a U.S. Government publication. The Foreword describes it as “one of a series of handbooks prepared by Foreign Area Studies (FAS) of The American University, designed to be useful to military and other personnel who need a convenient compilation of basic facts about the social, economic, political, and military institutions and practices of various countries. The emphasis is on objective description of the nation’s present society and the kinds of possible or probable changes that might be expected in the future.”

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10th Anniversary On October 1, 2010, DP kicked off a 10-day celebration of its 10th anniversary. This blog was inaugurated on that date with A Decade of Dedication, and continued each day until October 10 celebrating DP-produced books and DP volunteer stories: The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, An Introduction to Astronomy, “Turn around when possible,” Kipling’s Just So Stories, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration, the Encyclopedia of Needlework, In Pursuit of Poetry, Come out of the Kitchen, and, finally, a slice of DP history from its former General Manager, Garage Musings.

19000 The 19,000th title was a Dutch offering, Vanden Vos Reinaerde, Uitgegeven en Toegelicht, edited by W.J.A. Jonckbloet (1856), posted November 9, 2010. This is a critical edition of the medieval fables about the clever Reynard the Fox, which were satirical commentaries on human society disguised as animal tales.

20000 Then, on April 7, 2011, DP celebrated its 20,000th title with multiple books in multiple languages: English; Italian, including Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects; German, including Middle High German; Latin, including Latino sine flexione; Dutch; French; and Esperanto. You can find the full list, with links, in this celebratory blog post.

Next: The celebration continues with milestones 21000 to 25000.

These 15th Anniversary posts were contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.

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