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Proofreading the public domain

At last month’s BookNet Canada technology forum, one memorable moment came during a talk by Montrealer Hugh McGuire, one of the co-organizers of BookCamp Toronto and the founder of LibriVox, an online repository of free, public domain audiobooks. McGuire had just finished sharing his thoughts on time, love, and the power of open source technology, when one audience member asked “ rather petulantly “ what, exactly, McGuire did to make a living. His response, if this Quillblogger recalls correctly, referred to The Book Oven, McGuire’s latest online startup, which has the stated goal of helping “more people make more books.” On Thursday, The Book Oven launched its first application, which aims at correcting typos in texts uploaded to Project Gutenberg.

Bite-Size Edits is a collaborative proofreading application that McGuire describes as either “a word-based online game” or “a massive ” yet productive ” time waster.” Here’s how it works: Instead of presenting volunteer proofreaders with long passages drawn from public domain texts, the program selects short, one-sentence snippets, along with the surrounding lines for context. Users read the snippet and then either approve it as is or suggest changes. According to technology blogger Suw Charman-Anderson, one of the principals involved with BookOven, “If our calculations are correct, it will take 100 people just 10 minutes to proofread a 100,000 word book, and we want to bring that collaborative power to bear on on the public domain.”

The application is still in the private, alpha phase, so to sign up, you need to have a valid invitation code (posted here, here, and here). Upon first use, the Book-Size Edits module seems clean, easy to use, and indeed, surprisingly addictive. (So far, about 1,600 individual snippets have been evaluated from public domain texts.) One conspicuous thing that’s missing, however, is an easy-to-access style guide that the proofers can refer to. Copy-editing, after all, can be a subjective art.