How To Download FREE Books with Project Gutenberg and Why You Should

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What is Project Gutenberg?

Project Gutenberg is a wonderful source of free reading material that is available to anyone, anywhere in the world, for no cost…not even a log in.


The materials found on Project Gutenberg are verified as being in the public domain.  To understand “public domain”, read this article from The Lois Level: What is Public Domain? 

Project Gutenberg was founded specifically as a public service to support literacy, with the ideal of making the most consulted books in the world free to all.  The first item put in the collection was the United States Declaration of Independence. 

You might never have realized this, but in the history of publishing, only a small percentage of important literary works are protected by copyright, so sharing this material is perfectly legal. 

There are a lot more materials out there that, while not especially important, have stood the test of time as far as being entertaining reads.

There are other sources that have this material available freely online, but you have no guarantee that the document you download is accurate, and sometimes, the materials you download on paid sites, such as Amazon, are so error laden that they are unreadable. 

Project Gutenberg is devoted to preserving literary works accurately, and they have systems in place to assure that that volunteers do so.

Downloading from Project Gutenberg is surprisingly simple too.  The books usually come in a variety of formats, including Kindle. 

If you need to go to an area that does not have reliable Internet, there is an app you can use to download the entire library when you do have Internet and take it with you.  This can be helpful for anyone working with literacy or educational initiatives of any kind in remote locations. 

While Project Gutenberg and affiliate organizations are increasingly making materials available in a variety of languages, the original PG, as an American organization, mostly has materials in English. What many first language English speakers don’t realize is that literacy skills in English is one of the most marketable jobs skills you can acquire in most parts of the world.  Even basic English skills can mean that a restaurant worker, for example, can get a job in a nicer restaurant with better pay if he/she can communicate with non-local patrons. Access to free English materials can be a major life changer for large segments of the most deprived members of the world’s population.

So Project Gutenberg is great for anyone to use, but the service they provide brings an important educational opportunity to many people.

Reasons You Should Choose Project Gutenberg Over other Free Book Sites

Here it is in a nutshell: 

1.     Project Gutenberg carefully verifies that all materials it shares are legally “out of copyright”, so no authors are being cheated.

2.     Project Gutenberg checks its materials to ensure they are correct and complete. 

3.     Project Gutenberg is a nonprofit, and exists to support literacy world wide and to ensure that no important works of literature are lost.  Rather than putting a little money in someone’s pocket, if you feel you must pay for this privilege, volunteer or donate to Project Gutenberg.

4.     Project Gutenberg provides materials in a variety of formats for (near)universal accessibility.

5.     Project Gutenberg does not require that users provide any personal information, which means that you don’t even have to trade your privacy to use it.  This feature also makes Project Gutenberg a boon for all educators because they can have students download texts directly without worrying about privacy concerns, especially when the students are minors.


How to Download a Book from Project Gutenberg to Kindle

Downloading a book from Project Gutenberg might seem difficult because they don’t really give you any directions, but downloading to a Kindle is actually very simple.


1.     Navigate to gutenberg.org in the browser of your choice.

This is the home page as seen on 27 January, 2021.

2.     In the search box on the top left, type the name of the author or the name of the book you want and click “search”

3. If the book or author doesn’t come up, double check the wording or spelling, or do an author search instead of title search (or vice versa). The site is a bit basic, so any minor error can make a search erroneously fail. It won’t self-correct the way Google and Amazon do.

For L. M. Montgomery, I got this page. Note the button in the lower right corner showing that there are more pages of Montgomery’s works.

Also notice the file in the right hand column that takes you to the complete list of Montgomery’s works. This feature is provided for many of the more popular authors.

4. When you find a title you are interested in, click on it. Note that this is not Amazon, so don’t expect to find descriptions at Project Gutenberg; open another browser tab and search elsewhere for that. And don’t be too picky…everything is free here, and I’ve found some great hidden gems I didn’t know a thing about until I started reading!

5. The page for the book will list the formats that are available and some options for shortcuts to different sources (such as Dropbox). For Kindle, click on Kindle (with images) for the best experience.

Note that for some very popular books, there may be more than one file, as there is for Anne of Green Gables. So if you don’t see a Kindle link or a link “with images”, try again.

The first copy of Anne of Green Gables that I chose didn’t have a Kindle version with pictures, so I chose a different one.

The file you want is highlighted here.

3.     Go to wherever your files download to.  If you don’t know, either Google it or ask someone who does.  On a Mac, look in your “Finder” app under “Downloads”.

This image shows what my downloaded file looks like in the lower left corner of my screen.

4.     Click on the downloaded file, and a “Send to Kindle” dialogue box will open up.

5.     All of your devices with the Kindle app will appear in the dialogue box.  Confirm that the one you want it to go to is checked.  Note that if you check the box, “Archive document in your Kindle Library”, the book will automatically go to your Kindle Library on Amazon, and you can download it to any device from there in the future.

And this is what the dialogue box will look like. The check box should default to whichever device you have set as your “default” on Kindle, but confirm.

5.     All of your devices with the Kindle app will appear in the dialogue box.  Confirm that the one you want it to go to is checked.  Note that if you check the box, “Archive document in your Kindle Library”, the book will automatically go to your Kindle Library on Amazon, and you can download it to any device from there in the future.

6. Double check that your file downloaded to your Kindle. If it hasn’t, double check your Wifi Connection and then try downloading again. Also check that you had the correct device selected. It might be slow, but it should get there.

See the Tips section of this post below to find out how to download books for which there is no Kindle file…as long as there is a PDF, you can read it on your Kindle with one extra step.


More Tips and Tricks for Project Gutenberg

What do I do if there is no Kindle file for the book I want?

In the rare case that there is not a Project Gutenberg Kindle file, you can download a PDF and e-mail it to your Kindle. You can actually e-mail any document you like to your Kindle if you know this trick; I’ve used it often when I have a lot of articles to read when I’m traveling for work.

Amazon automatically assigns your Kindle its own, personal email address when you register your Kindle.

If you have your Kindle device handy: Go to home>Settings>Send to Kindle Email (your address will be right on the screen).

If you don’t:

  1. Go to amazon.com and log in if you need to.

  2. In the “My Account” menu, select “Content and Devices”.

3. When you see the page with all of your content, select the “Devices” tab.

4. After pausing for a moment in shock at all the devices you’ve owned over the years (it will show all of them, not just the ones you currently own), click on “Kindle” and select your current Kindle. You will see the email address there.

Navigating Project Gutenberg Downloads on Kindle

You may or may not be able to navigate through chapters in a book downloaded from Project Gutenberg, so check that before you try to start jumping around in the book, or you may have to struggle to find your place.

For this reason, if you are going to make a formal study of the text, I would recommend getting a paper copy or at least paying for a scholarly copy (the kind with footnotes) on Amazon. Signet Classics, Oxford Classics, and Norton Classics are all good options and worth the money. Signet Classics is usually the most economical.

When I was a teacher, I would encourage my students to download digital copies for pre-reading over the summer just to make travel easy (yeah, I had students who would do that), but we used paper copies for teaching and studying.

If you do go with the digital copy, don’t buy one of the low cost versions on Amazon to get navigation features. I’ve found the documents on Project Gutenberg better than the cheapies on Amazon; I think those books are just put up by some seller hoping to make a quick buck. That person probably downloaded the original text from PG or somewhere less reliable.

Project Gutenberg uses volunteers to upload their documents, but they have good protocols in place to check the files because their core mission is to rescue the texts for posterity.

Sometimes the original page decorations can interfere with the text a little. If you have problems with that, try downloading the “no images” versions.

What about books that are translated into English? Why can’t I find the one I want?

If you download a text in translation (e.g. originally written in another language) from Project Gutenberg, keep in mind that it might be outdated and hard to read. If you are using it for class study, you may have a completely different version than the rest of the class.

A book that is in public domain in its original language probably won’t have translations in the public domain because they are done later, and classic works are usually retranslated from time to time.

Reading outdated translations is like trying to read something that is a copy of a copy. You already are subject to the aesthetic judgement of the translator that changes the original, so if that person uses English words in a way that is different from the way we do now, the original meaning can become lost.

That’s the reason they retranslate The Bible every so often, and also why it’s important to select a NEW TRANSLATION for your Bible rather than a paraphrased version of the King James.

What if I want books from other countries or not in English?

The original Project Gutenberg is an American invention, so most of the texts are in English. They are increasingly including texts in other languages, but the texts are chosen by the volunteers, so it really just depends.

There are affiliate PG’s around the world, which you will find of list of here. You will also find books in English that are not out of copyright under U.S. law but are in other countries.

It is illegal to download copyrighted books in the U.S. from other countries’ websites, but if a text is in the public domain in another country, it is probably only a matter of time before it goes into the public domain in the U.S., and the second it does, you can download from anywhere legally, even before they get posted on the U.S. sites.

Why is it bad to use other sources for free books?

It isn’t bad, the idea is that Project Gutenberg is the a good option for three reasons:

  1. They ensure that the books are in the public domain in the U.S.

  2. They carefully check the books to ensure that the text is correct and authentic, without errors or omissions.

  3. They provide multiple ways for users to download the texts so that they can be easily read under a variety of circumstances.

Google Books, Hathi Trust, and other sites run by universities and libraries are reliable.

They can be hard to search or don’t allow downloading, or you need to qualify for a membership to get full access. At minimum, you need to log in.

There are some sites that claim to be about sharing intellectual property, but they post copyrighted material illegally. I will not share their links because I don’t want to support them.

Come on: if a book has been published in the last hundred years, it’s there illegally. Don’t rip off writers and publishers.

How do you feel about people not paying for your professional services?

Obviously you will want to read books that are copyrighted: Use the original crowdsourcing organization, aka the public library.

Note: Public libraries started out as subscription services much like Netflix, Audible, or Kindle Unlimited. Public libraries pay extra for their books to account for the excessive handling they receive and their circulation, which you already pay for through your taxes.

Read The Lois Level’s Why the American Public Library is the Foundation of our Democracy for tips on making the best use of the library and getting access to libraries legally.

Don’t pay for downloads of public domain books. They are perfectly legal; you are ripping yourself off because there’s no way of knowing whether the text is correct. If you have money you just don’t need, donate to Project Gutenberg instead.

What about audio books?

Audio books are great. Audible is expensive (but if you do decide to get it, be sure to use my link to the right of the page to keep us going. I’m shameless, but honest. :)).

If you have a good public library, they have the same audio books that Audible does; you will just need to wait your turn.

Project Gutenberg is including more and more audio editions (you can see some on my screen shot of Anne of Green Gables holdings above).

Libri Vox is the best resource for public domain audio books.

Note: If reading out loud is your thing, Libri Vox uses volunteer labor as well. This is a great service to provide to those who have visual limitations, language learners, and the time deprived (who don’t have time to sit down with a book!).

There are also public domain audio books on Youtube, but their authenticity may be questionable. Libri Vox is better. In institutions, such as schools, using Youtube when you don’t need video can put extra pressure on the Wifi network. Also, with Librivox, you are downloading, not live streaming.

What if I’m going to be in an area with no Internet for a long time, or know people who are?

At one time, Project Gutenberg actually sent free CD’s anywhere in the world with as much of their collection downloaded to it as possible. That program has been discontinued; I suppose because all countries in the world have Internet SOMEWHERE, but they may not have coverage in all areas. To fill in the gap, they have an app that allows you to download the entirety of Project Gutenberg and take it with you as a file.

I’m giving you link to the PG page in case the app changes; click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.

This feature is especially useful for anyone going to a remote location to teach because you would effectively be bringing a library for your students. It’s perfectly legal to share the files any way that you choose, including by printing them out.

For information on getting digital materials from the library, if you have access to one, read The Lois Level’s
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Bas-relief depicting thinkers and writers in America whose ideas were disseminated thanks to the printing press, bas-relief located under the statue of Gutenberg Work of David d’Angers (1788-1856) 1839-1840 Original plaster Model of bronze accompanied by its 4 bas-reliefs Public commission for Place Gutenberg in Strasbourg Work exhibited in the David d’Angers gallery (Angers) (Translated by Google from the French on the Wikimedia Commons page).

My apologies for the racist portion of this bas relief; I just could not resist the poetic balance of the “Declaration of Independence” being the only text the artist decided to show on this monument to Johannes Gutenberg…which also happened to be the first text put on Project Gutenberg, just because Michael Hart had a copy in his backpack, according to Wikipedia (link below).

Why is it called “Project Gutenberg”?

This is the statue of Johannes Gutenberg on the top of the monument in Strasbourg, France. The detail above, is on the same monument. Click here for images of the entire thing.

Chabe01, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Gutenberg is famous for having introduced the moveable type printing press to Europe, which allowed for the rapid expansion of reading materials.

Project Gutenberg was introduced in 1971, yup, 40 years ago.

A main named Michael S. Hart was gifted with almost unlimited online time in the days of ARPNET, the precursor to the Internet. This gift of online time was worth so much money in 1971 that he wanted to “give back” a gift of great value, so he decided to try digitizing the great works of the world.

Project Gutenberg started before scanning had even been invented, so the first volunteers (after he stopped doing it himself) had to type everything in!

That takes me back: when I was doing my practicum as a high school teacher (you were supposed to hang out with a teacher but not really teach), I typed my cooperating teacher’s study guides into a Mac, put them all in cool corresponding fonts (Gothic for The Scarlet Letter, drippy scary letters for Poe, etc.), and earned his top grade EVER! That was hot technology even in the late 80’s.

Anyway, the idea behind Project Gutenberg is to collect all the important knowledge into one place and make it free to all. Pretty amazing, right?

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!