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Magazines > Searcher > November 2011
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Vol. 19 No. 9 — November 2011
O! Pioneers!
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

What does it take to be a pioneer? As in most things human, a combination of qualities …
Michael Hart, the founder, leader, defender, advocate, and voice of Project Gutenberg, died this summer. Several friends and colleagues of mine sent me links to obituaries and tributes to the man.

Nick Tomaiuolo, a frequent contributor to Searcher, had interviewed and interacted with Hart several times in the course of creating articles and chapters in his books. He particularly recalled Hart’s generosity in contributing his time and energy to a virtual stranger, his unabated enthusiasm for the cause, and his fierce loyalty and gratitude to the Project Gutenberg family of contributors.

A long-time colleague of Hart’s, Gregory Newby, alluded to other character traits exhibited by Hart — his pride in “being unreasonable,” his independence from the pack, his eternal willingness to engage in debate. One remark in Newby’s obituary — “He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors” — may serve as a warning against overdoing independence of mind considering Hart’s relatively early death at age 64. Sometimes, just now and then, the pack knows best.

But think of what this man accomplished. From a Fourth of July 40 years ago he spent keying in the Declaration of Independence and posting it online, Project Gutenberg now delivers more than 36,000 public domain texts to the world. But much more than that, his ideas, backed by his unflagging, unstoppable persistence in the trench warfare that characterizes the early days of any social or technological revolution, have led to the enormous changes of today and tomorrow as books join journals and newspapers and other information formats in the digital transformation. Would the millions and millions of books in Google Books and HathiTrust be online today if Project Gutenberg hadn’t shown the way? Would publishers and booksellers all over the globe be scrambling to transfer “stock” into electronic formats had not Hart proved he could create a readership that expected and even demanded more and more ebooks? And on a broader scale, how much has Project Gutenberg’s success contributed to the user-generated content movement as a whole?

What does it take to be a pioneer? As in most things human, a combination of qualities — some noble, some downright earthy, some good all the time, some good only in context, some borderline naughty. And, oh yes, did we mention luck? That too.

First, there’s vision — a clear view of a possible and desirable future — although sometimes that vision can seem to a sneering world as ludicrously unlikely at worst or even blinkered in its narrow focus, as though all the world’s problems could be solved by one single change. But it’s not just vision. As Thomas Alva Edison described genius, it is “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It’s the work and effort, the all-nighters, the months and years of persistence beating that drum. That’s what gets the job done. And, by the time the world has changed, as you always knew it would, you may not even get the credit. The world may have long since tired of you and your message, even when it has learned and adapted to the changes you have advocated so totally. Still, as Harry Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

And then there are the people skills, the ability to communicate your vision to others, the ability to fire up others with your own ardor into enlisting in the effort required, the care and handling of the troops, which can vary from tender nurturing to drill sergeant hollering, whichever gets the job done. You’ve got to be something of a curmudgeon; your opposition will accuse you of it one way or another, anyway. But you’ve also got to be someone who fellow believers can trust, knowing that you’ll back them all the way when they’re right, just as you’ll correct them (here comes that curmudgeon again) when they’ve strayed.

And one more thing. To bear the heavy load that pioneering requires, the mockery of disbelievers, the long hours and longer years of persistent effort, the loneliness of seeing what no one else sees, that vision must include a higher purpose than profit. The outcome for that kind of commitment must involve the betterment of humanity or at least a big chunk of humanity. Just getting a better job or even founding a successful revenue stream won’t cut it. Frankly, it’s the second tier of Westerners, the ones that followed the pioneers, that tend to make the big money. But that’s okay. The pioneers are satisfied with a job well done. As Stephen Vincent Benet once wrote of the Western migration of America, “The cowards never started/ the weak died along the way.” And there’s always new territory to be opened, new worlds to be won, new improvements in the human condition to be engineered.

So which way to the Conestoga wagons, my friends? We’re all pioneer stock.

— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is

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