Celebrating 30,000 Titles

July 7, 2015

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Distributed Proofreaders has reached another milestone: we’ve posted 30,000 unique titles to Project Gutenberg!

We’re celebrating this achievement with a collection of 30 works, the product of DP volunteers’ perseverance and hard work in making a wide range of books available online:

These titles are an excellent illustration of what DP volunteers do every day:  We preserve and make available, for the delight and enlightenment of readers everywhere, a broad array of books on many subjects and in many languages. Congratulations to all who made this achievement possible!


The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn

July 4, 2015

Every once in a while, when my usual route home to Brooklyn from my job in Queens is clogged with traffic, I opt to take what I like to think of as the Revolutionary War Route. This route takes me past the site of a brilliant strategic move by the British that nearly cost the brand-new American nation its independence. You can learn much about that move from Henry Phelps Johnston’s fascinating account, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn, published in 1878.

map The campaign actually began months before the American Continental Congress issued its Declaration of Independence (the first e-book, by the way, that Project Gutenberg ever posted). Johnston relates how in January 1776, George Washington, rightly suspecting that the British would try to occupy New York City, obtained the Continental Congress’s approval to raise the city’s defenses. By August 1776, enough forts, batteries, barricades, and redoubts had been constructed so that the Americans “had inclosed themselves on the Brooklyn peninsula.”

The Americans, however, hadn’t reckoned on one key weakness in their position. Between them and the British lay a long, thickly wooded ridge, the product of glaciers receding thousands of years before. Today, this ridge is filled with parks and cemeteries, and along it runs the parkway I sometimes take to get home. Back in 1776, it was a wilderness. The Americans believed that they had all the important passes through this ridge under control.

But there was another pass that they had left essentially unguarded: the Jamaica Pass. Four miles to the east of the American lines, it was too isolated to keep covered effectively. Just a handful of officers were assigned to patrol it, for the Americans confidently believed that the British would be approaching from a different direction.

As Johnston puts it,

But little did the Americans suspect that at the very moment their defence seemed well arranged and their outguards vigilant they were already in the web which the enemy had been silently weaving around them during the night. That flanking column!… [W]ith crushing weight was it now to fall upon our outpost guards, who felt themselves secure along the hills and in the woods.

British troops poured through the pass, and the Americans were outflanked. They lost the Battle of Long Island, and eventually lost control of New York to the British. The war, fought on many fronts throughout the colonies, would not end until 1783.

The depth of Johnston’s scholarship is evident, but his writing is so clear that the reader never feels mired in detail. There are helpful maps, and a special bonus in Part II of the book: dozens of documents from the campaign that not only illustrate the strategies and concerns of the American generals, but also give a fascinating glimpse into everyday military life in the 18th Century. Johnston’s book is an outstanding contribution to American history.

Today is the 239th anniversary of American independence.


Sunday School Stories

April 4, 2015

Maybee’s Stepping Stones by Archie Fell is a book of Sunday school stories for each week of the year. As I read it, I experienced a wide range of emotions — love, kindness, patience, life, death, naughtiness, guilt, fear, consequences, tolerance, forgiveness, family, community, happiness, sorrow, adversity, hope, loneliness, sadness, joy….

frontispiece

I gasped with alarm when Dick shot himself; when Tryphosa was overcome with the fire. I wanted to cry when Dick lay in the woods unheard, when Phosy and Aunty McFane became ill, and I rejoiced when Mrs. Harte and Bill Finnegan went to the Sabbath School, and when Dan Harte resolved to overcome his addiction to alcohol. I shared the children’s frustrations as they struggled with doing the right thing, and smiled unashamedly when their good deeds worked near miracles.

The stories may be old-fashioned, and based on Christianity, but the lessons are for us all, whether we believe in a god or not, whether our deeds are in person or via social media, whether we are young or old. We can all put out a hand in comfort and together we can grow in strength no matter what our trials and tribulations.

She had just been reading a chapter in the Bible out loud, and Aunty McFane said there was a promise for every ache she had. Isn’t it funny,” he  continued, turning to Miss Marvin, “that folks just as different as can be find exactly what they want in the Bible? — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 224.

Reading these stories, I couldn’t help but reminisce about when I was a little girl going to Sunday school.

Denomination meant nothing to us so the church we attended was the one within walking distance — I think it was Presbyterian. Our parents didn’t seem particularly religious, but they did make us go to Sunday school. Our father had in mind that if we weren’t christened it would be easier for us if we wanted to marry someone of strong faith in a particular church.

I never did work out my father’s beliefs. I suspect my mother was quite devout, although I did not know her to go to church, and she didn’t speak about religion much. She did go to a Catholic primary school — she had me shocked and in fits of laughter when she told me of the time she had to stand in front of an open fire with a piece of soap in her mouth because she had sworn at the nuns.

…  then she tried scrubbing the inside of his mouth with soap-suds — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 19.

My sister only recently told me the story of her second son who, at age six, when admonished for swearing, was threatened with a similar fate of having his mouth washed out with soap. The little boy went to the bathroom, grabbed some soap, foamed it up in his mouth, and went out to his mother and said, “Now I can swear.” I think there’s quite a bit of my mother’s determined spirit in both my sister and my nephew. The same son said to my sister the other week: “Do what you want, mother, you will anyway.”

My mother also told the story of a family member who was a Major in the Salvation Army. I heard her say many times that only the good die young. And I learnt that she had a very difficult time accepting the death of a daughter before I was born.

Upon the pine coffin, the girls in Miss Cox’s class laid a wreath of beautiful hot-house flowers; but all over the lid, and inside, around the pale face and over the white robe, were fresh, fragrant pond-lilies, their subtile perfume filling the room. — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 149.

We had Sunday School stories, much like those told in Maybee’s Stepping Stones. We collected a stamp for each story lesson we attended. When our stamp sheet was full, we were presented with a little book.

We had our “Sunday best” clothes, and how we did love dressing up, putting on our delicate little dresses with ribbons and bows, and polishing our little shoes. Going to Sunday school was exciting and something to look forward to. It added a purpose to our lives, spiritual and social.

But she made her appearance, bright and early, Sabbath morning, comparatively quite docile, submitted to be washed, shampooed, braided, and ruffled, with a most martyr-like air, and came out from the process not so very unlike the five other girls, among whom Say seated her, with such a happy look in her own blue eyes. Just to see her sitting there more than repaid the trouble. — Maybee’s Stepping Stones, page 106.

Our Sunday school was at the back of the church in a prefabricated corrugated steel “Nissen hut” like those used for temporary accommodation during the war years. The building is still there but it is no longer a church, and the hut has been replaced by a brick addition attached to the main building.

I mentioned above it was within walking distance. Back then, there was a church nearby almost everywhere. I thought about this in recent years when a neighbour who had become almost housebound because of poor vision and declining mobility told me that one of the things she missed most was being able to walk to church. Her old church building was still there, too, at the end of the street where she had lived most of her adult life, along with the convent buildings that had been converted first to a school, and then to an art gallery, and now left to crumble. The nearest church for her was now on the other side of town. Buses don’t run on Sundays in this small community so, with few friends or family interested in taking her to church, she had only television services to comfort her.

So much inward soul searching from a little children’s book — literary merit?… Well, the stories stand up to the test of time, is all I can conclude.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


From Paper to App: How Distributed Proofreaders Got a Cebuano Dictionary on Smartphones

March 7, 2015

Because my wife’s native language is Cebuano, I am always on the lookout for resources in that language. Although widely spoken in the Southern Philippines, with about 30 million native speakers, the language lacks any official status and is mainly used in informal settings. Primary schools switch to a mix of English and Tagalog (re-branded as “Filipino” to make it a national language) after the first two years, and most official business takes place in English. As a result, there are very few publications in Cebuano.device-2015-02-23-204551

Back in 2006, I was able to obtain a set of scans of John U. Wolff’s Dictionary of Cebuano Visayan from somebody in the Philippines, and not much later I found a second set of scans available online from Cornell University. Immediately I noticed that this is a great resource for people who would like to study the language: it gives detailed grammatical information, and includes numerous sample sentences. Of course, it does have its issues: its use of non-standard orthography makes it less acceptable to most speakers of language, and the way the information on verb-usage is encoded is hard to understand even for a determined student. But still it would be very nice to have this book in a digital format.

Since the dictionary dates from 1972, at first I had little hope it could be re-published in Project Gutenberg; however, I got in touch with the author, now Emeritus Professor at Cornell University, and after consultation with the publisher he gave me permission to process the book for Project Gutenberg. Later on, I also noticed a very liberal “Public Domain” notice on this copy, stating that the book would enter the public domain in 1982.

Quickly, the process of preparing the scans for Distributed Proofreaders started: splitting all scans into columns, preparing instructions for the sometimes complex entries, and preparing several projects (one for each letter), such that proofers wouldn’t be shocked by a 2500+ page count, and more importantly, that work on it could be done in all rounds at once, and post-processing could get an early start with the first few letters.

When the first parts started to return from the site, the massive work of post-processing such a huge work started. Fiddling with regular expressions and custom-made conversion scripts in a combination of Perl and XSLT, I managed to massage the original typographic tagging to a far more useful structural tagging, such that all the various elements encoded in the dictionary were marked as such, with grammar labels, entries and sub-entries, sample sentences, and their translations having their own tag. This would also enable a spell-check of the entire document, in which the dictionary itself proved highly useful, because one of the first things I did with the data was to convert it into a SQL database, and build a web interface around it, which enabled me to quickly look up words in their context, and then use this interface to locate remaining issues in the data.

When all this was done, I was able to produce a huge (almost 10 megabyte) HTML and text file for submission to Project Gutenberg, and a nice PDF version which could be used to reprint the book; and, even better, I could publish the web interface on the website I set up to promote Bohol. All files required to process the dictionary are available online as well.

Since the introduction of tablet computers, I wanted to also create some software for them, and I got that opportunity in 2013, when I got three months of paid leave as part of my severance payment when my employer decided to close the Dutch office in which I was working. In that period, I dived into the architecture of Android apps, and basically re-coded the functionality of the website for a smartphone, in such a way that all the data was on-board and could be accessed without the need to be connected. Although the app was basically finished by October 2013, it took me quite some time to publish it, as I was occupied with other things, as a 7.2 earthquake in Bohol destroyed my in-laws’ house (as well as many other buildings, including some of its most beautiful historical churches). Also, I wanted to add some more features and polish the icons being used, and was investigating a way to earn something from the app. Seeing that this was not going happen soon, I decided to release the Cebuano-English Dictionary App for free, and also publish the complete source code, hoping it will prove a great resource for all with an interest in the Cebuano language, and hoping the source code will be helpful in building similar dictionaries for other languages. (Unfortunately, I won’t be making a version for the iPhone, as Apple requires DRM on all apps distributed through their iTunes store, and in general their conditions are incompatible with the GPL-3 I am using for my code).

Of course, all this wouldn’t have been possible without the diligent proofreading of many volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders — for that, daghang salamat (many thanks)!


Opera Buff

February 7, 2015

Not everyone likes opera, but when someone loves opera, it’s a deep and passionate and unending love. There’s something utterly beguiling about the marriage of music and drama that makes some people downright demented about it. I know whereof I speak; I’ve been working with a small opera company since I was 11 years old, for nearly 44 years now, and I’m familiar with every form of opera dementia—my own and that of countless others. For the love of opera, people will stand in long lines in the rain, sit in uncomfortable seats for hours, travel long distances, spend years studying it, singing it, working at it, talking about it, writing about it.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Gustav Kobbé (1857-1918) was demented about opera, but the sheer scale of his masterpiece, The Complete Opera Book, proves that it was no ordinary labor of love.

Kobbé trained as a pianist, and took a detour to law school, but ultimately made his career as a music and drama critic for the leading newspapers and magazines of the day. In that capacity, he attended opera performances all over the world, including the 1882 premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth, Germany. He put his decades of opera experience into The Complete Opera Book, published posthumously in 1919.

The book is truly a tour-de-force, covering over 200 operas in over 800 pages. Kobbé provides information about each opera’s premiere and important performances, with the leading singers’ names; a complete character list with voice types; anecdotes about the opera’s composition and early performances; analysis and criticism; a synopsis of the plot; and, as the title page boasts, “400 of the Leading Airs and Motives in Musical Notation.” The first edition also contains “One Hundred Portraits in Costume and Scenes from Opera”—fascinating historic photographs of the leading singers of the day, in character.

Caruso

Enrico Caruso as Canio in I Pagliacci

Alas, Kobbé didn’t live to see his masterpiece in print. In the summer of 1918, he was indulging in his other love, sailing off the coast of Long Island in New York, when he was killed by a low-flying hydroplane. According to the New York Times account, he saw the plane coming, and had just stood up to dive to safety when the plane’s bottom boards hit him in the head.

Luckily, he had nearly completed The Complete Opera Book, and it was decided to bring it to publication soon after his death, with fellow music critic Katharine Wright editing the work and adding some operas to it. But the apparent rush to publication unfortunately left numerous errors in the first edition. Still, Kobbé’s labor of love was deservedly hailed as a “notable addition to musical literature” (Oakland Tribune, Jan. 4, 1920).

The Complete Opera Book has remained an important opera reference work since. It was revised and updated a number of times, most famously by George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, whose best-known edition, The Definitive Kobbé’s Opera Book (1987) contains over 300 operas and is now considered a classic, though it lacks the historic photographs and some of Kobbé’s original commentary. The most recent edition, The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997), added some 200 additional operas, but disappointingly omits much of the detailed information and music notation contained in earlier editions, presumably to make room for those additional operas.

To my opera-demented mind, the later editions, while useful, somehow lack the charm of the original, with its frank enthusiasm (“Wagner’s genius was so supreme that, although he has been dead thirty-four years, he is still without a successor”) and its wealth of illustrations. The Distributed Proofreaders team has brought the original to life again, complete with photographs, and music that you can actually hear. Who knows, it may make an opera buff out of you.


Histoire de France: Our 29,000th Title

January 14, 2015

PGDP - 29.000th Unique Title

Distributed Proofreaders is celebrating another milestone — our 29,000th title posted to Project Gutenberg — with another very special project: the completion of all 19 volumes of Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France.

Michelet labored for over 30 years on his masterpiece, at first aided by his job in the French government’s Record Office, which gave him access to a vast array of primary sources. Due to his ardent republican sentiments, he lost his job after the 1848 Revolution, but continued the work on his great Histoire, taking time out now and then to produce a number of works on subjects as varied as natural history, religion, and even witchcraft. Project Gutenberg has a good collection of Michelet’s works in different languages.

The Histoire, completed in 1867, covers the full sweep of French history from ancient times to the French Revolution. Michelet devoted several volumes to the Renaissance, a term that he is said to have coined to describe the flowering of European culture after the strictures of the Middle Ages. He brought to his work not only meticulous scholarship, but also a unique personal style, almost poetic in its romanticism, and a deep interest, revolutionary for its time, in the people of France, not just their kings and governments.

Congratulations to the many DP volunteers who brought this great project to fruition!


Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and of Scotland

October 22, 2014

Wilson's Tales

Distributed Proofreaders has posted the last of the 24 volumes of Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and of Scotland: Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative. The original 66 stories were collected by John MacKay Wilson (1804-1835). He began publishing them weekly in 1834 as editor of the “Berwick Advertisor.” His unexpected death at age 31 the following year left a widow with an inadequate income. The executors of the estate and friends of the family then gathered a further 233 tales, which were published for her support. Alexander Leighton, one of the major contributors of stories, published the collection in the 24-volume set which is now complete at Project Gutenberg.

The short stories of these collections paint vivid pictures of life in the Borders — deaths and marriages, shipwrecks and celebrations, the ordinary and extra-ordinary events in the lives of people living on the edge of both Scotland and England. These details and more about the tales and the editors of the collections can be found at The Wilson’s Tales Project.

Hundreds of Distributed Proofreaders volunteers collaborated for over ten years to ensure the wide availability of these delightful and historical tales. The first volume was posted in February of 2004, and the last in September of 2014. There were several challenges facing the DP team in their effort to accurately render the tales as the editors intended. In addition to period spelling and grammar, the tales are full of words from the local dialect and dialogue modified to help the reader hear the border speech patterns. These contribute significantly both to the charm and the historicity of the tales, but also caused thousands of words in each volume to fail traditional spell-checkers and to need verification, sometimes with research. Congratulations to the Distributed Proofreaders team, who have continued the work of Mr. Wilson to preserve these stories for future generations to enjoy.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer who worked on Wilson’s Tales.


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