Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Project Gutenberg eBooks, Masters of Water-colour Painting

Project Gutenberg eBooks, Masters of Water-colour Painting
It’s nice to start the new year by looking forward, but it can be just as instructive to look back; and there are some great resources that make looking back easier and more fruitful than ever.

Project Gutenberg is a great idea. Not just in the sense of “great” as “terrific”, but in the sense of “great” as “milestone” or “extraordinary”.

If you’re not familiar with it, Project Gutenberg is an attempt to digitize and archive as many public domain cultural works as possible (as opposed to archiving technical information). Started in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, and maintained and contributed to by thousands of volunteers, the archive already contains the full text of more then 20,000 books that are old enough to have moved into the public domain.

These are archived as free eBooks in several formats, Plucker a format that can be read on a Palm device or smartphone with the open source Plucker Viewer; HTML, which can be read online or downloaded as a Zip file; and plain text in ascii and utf-8 encodings. There are also audio books, sheet music and pictures.

Even though the length of time it takes for a book to become public domain was extended by the Copyright Term Extension Act, as the result of intensive lobbying by Disney and other corporate entertainment barons (hence its nickname as The Mickey Mouse Protection Act because the change happened as MM was about to slip into public domain), there are still a number of books in the archive printed after color printing became economical enough to include good reproductions of illustrations and other paintings, in addition to the older pen and ink illustrations.

Unfortunately, the weak link in the Project Gutenberg chain seems to be that the scanning and preparation of many illustrated books for the archive has apparently been done by individuals with no knowledge of graphic arts basics, and/or by brain damaged rhesus monkeys, resulting in the frustrating presence of a number archived illustrated books in which the illustrations are dark, blurry, over-compressed smears, or ratty, scratchy GIF files. (The latter is sadly the state of their archive of the wonderful John Tenniel illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For better resources, see my post on Sir John Tenniel).

Thankfully, this is not always the fate of illustrated books in the collection, possibly because some graphics knowledgeable people have volunteered to help. A case in point is Masters of Water-Colour Painting by H.N. Cundall (HTML version here), a book published in the 1920’s with color plates of great watercolors, like the plate above, “Palazzo Contarini Fasan on the Grand Canal, Venice” by Samuel Prout.

There are some other gems in the collection but you have to look for them, a process that’s not always as easy as is should be. The project has a decent search feature, if you know what you’re looking for, but is weak on browsing. Repeated searching can bare fruit, the terms “painting” and “painters” will return different results. Try the Advanced Search or Catalog Overview page, from which you can use the Anacleo, Yahoo and Google search features.

Also, once you find a title you like, look in the “Bibliographic Record” section toward the top of that entry’s main page for the “LoC Class” link, in the case of the above title, the class is “ND: Fine Arts; Painting“, and returns some good results.

Digging will be rewarded.

Obviously, a project like this depends on contributions of money and time (they are always asking for help in the form of distributed proofreaders); and, though I can’t speak for the program, it looks to me like it might benefit in particular from they help of individuals with some knowledge of digital media and graphic arts.

[Masters of Water-Colour Painting link via Acuarela]

 
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7 thoughts on “Project Gutenberg eBooks, Masters of Water-colour Painting

  1. Mike Burke

    I’ve been working my way through your archive month by month and it’s amazing that I’d find this entry on the day that I planned to send you a suggestion about this site and project.

    Although you mentioned Yahoo and Google in you posting, I thought I’d suggest the search technique I use. I go to Google Image Search then paste the site address into the search field then add the topic of art I want to search – example below

    http://www.gutenberg.org fable

    I agree about the poor quality of some of the illustrations, but that poor quality may not always be the fault of the person doing the scanning. Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr. has pointed out the problem a few times in his commentary in his Images magazine. If I understood him correctly, the publisher did not always have access to the original artwork when preparing a new edition for press. Then when a different publisher set up to do an edition (in the time of photo engraving and offset plates) the illustrations could end up being third or fourth generation copies.

    One other thing I should mention. Some of the images may come up against use policies if you are looking at them on a school or work computer. No not for pornography, but for the racial and ethnic stereotyping which was commonly accepted when the original works were created.

    Still, it’s a fine resource to have and use.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, Mike. I’m glad you’re enjoying the archives.

    Yes, Project Gutenberg is a great resource. I have to say, though, that I’ve come up against the poor image quality of scanned illustrations from public domain works many times on the site, much to my frustration, and they are sometimes from sources that I know to have good non rights protected reproductions available, so it may be some of both.

    As a side note. I think the practice of blocking historic content for racial or ethnic stereotyping is despicable. Not that these things should be glorified, but if we pretend they didn’t exist, as so many “politically correct” groups seem to insist we should, we lose the hindsight that is our only weapon for preventing the same thing in the present and future. We need to see our past mistakes in order to learn from them.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Mike Burke

    I’m in agreement with you on the wrongness of blocking historical content. I mentioned the content for the benefit of those who may get into trouble viewing such material at work or at school.

    The censoring process has become a sore point with me but I shouldn’t go into that here. This comment almost became a rant, but I took some time to think about it before finishing and hitting the ‘Say It!’ button.

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