Free Books: Accessing the World’s Public Domain Literature

Posted on July 9, 2015 at 6:00 am

By Brian Vander Veen

Free Books: Accessing the World’s Public Domain Literature by Brian Vander Veen | Spokane County Library District

Whoever coined the Internet phrase “never read the comments” was a wise person indeed. It’s especially true if you’re a librarian (or library fan) reading pretty much any news article related to public libraries; inevitably, there’s the one commenter who questions why public libraries even exist, the guy who boldly proclaims libraries to be obsolete since “everything’s online.”

And I want to throw a book at him. Well, okay, not throw it exactly, but politely hand him a book published any time in the last thirty years or so, and challenge him to find me a free, legal copy of that book online. Any work published since 1978 is automatically protected by copyright; unless the rights holder has voluntarily made it available for free, you’re unlikely to find a copy out there on the web without ponying up some cash or breaking the law. In fact, any book published since 1923 is still protected by copyright as long as the rights holder remembered to jump through the hoops previously required to maintain copyright on a work.

Sure, no doubt, there’s an enormous amount of free information online, but kids aren’t going to get excited about reading if they have nothing to consume but dubious Percy Jackson fan fiction, nor will any number of Wikipedia articles substitute for a well written, authoritative book on a subject.

All of which is to say that even apart from all the other things libraries offer their communities—such as Internet access, educational programs, meeting room space, one-on-one research and technology help, or just a relatively quiet place to read and think—offering equal access to books, both in print and for digital download, remains a vital and necessary component of what we do.

But, I know, I promised free books.

I make that long-winded caveat because I don’t want to leave anyone confused about exactly what you’ll find out there on the web for free and legal download. You might find some pre-1978 books on which the copyright has lapsed for a variety of complicated legal reasons, but mostly, you’re talking pre-1923 books, those that are unambiguously within what’s called “the public domain.”

However, if older classics are your thing, then you’re definitely in luck. Here are the two best places to find free public domain eBooks and audiobooks respectively:

Project Gutenberg

The oldest digital library in existance, Project Gutenberg began in 1971 when University of Illinois student Michael Hart manually typed the text of the Declaration of Independence into a massive Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer. The university’s computer was a node on ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet, and with that, the first downloadable e-text was born. Today, thanks to the efforts of thousands of volunteers, Project Gutenberg boasts nearly 50,000 free eBooks, available in a variety of downloadable formats, including ePUB and Kindle.

You can search the collection by keyword, but if you want to browse through the best material, I suggest you start by looking through their most popular downloads, which include classics like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There are titles in almost every genre—mystery fans might want to check out the classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; sci-fi fans, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars; horror fans, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. There’s also plenty of classic non-fiction, including Edward Gibbon’s epic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. And there are classic children’s books, too, like The Wind in the Willows or Anne of Green Gables.

If you want to help Project Gutenberg fulfill its ongoing mission of making the world’s public domain literature available for free online, there are a variety of ways you can volunteer to help, including scanning, proofreading, or donating to the cause.


If you prefer listening to your books instead, you might want to check out Project Gutenberg affiliate LibriVox. Founded in 2005, LibriVox is the product of a volunteer-run effort to create audiobook versions of public domain texts. The site makes the audiobook recordings available for download in MP3 format, which is compatible with pretty much any mobile device or desktop computer. They can also be burned to Audio CD.

The texts are all recorded by volunteers, so the reading and audio quality can vary considerably. However, the search function on LibriVox does allow you to search by reader, so if you find someone whose reading you really enjoy, you can always search to find their other recordings. Some of the better readers I’ve found include Mark Nelson, who reads a lot of early pulp sci-fi and fantasy; Karen Savage, who focuses largely on classic British literature; and John Greenman, who reads mostly Mark Twain and other nineteenth-century American works.

If you fancy yourself a decent voice actor, LibriVox has information on volunteering your time toward the cause. Generally, all you’ll need is a computer, free recording software like Audacity, maybe an inexpensive microphone, and your best reading voice.

Of course, if you’re looking for more contemporary eBooks and digital audiobooks, be sure to check out our digital downloads on Overdrive, which county residents can use with their SCLD library card. And if you’re confused about any of these resources, please don’t hesitate to make an appointment for one-on-one assistance!


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