The problem with Project Gutenberg

I love Project Gutenberg. For those unfamiliar with it, it is an online library of texts, recordings, film, sheet music and artwork that is not copyrighted, mostly because the copyright has expired, but in some cases because the copyright owners have decided to make them available to the world free of charge. The biggest collection is that of books, of which it has thousands, including many classics. While I am no particular lover of e-books, I have downloaded and read many books from the site that I have been unable to get from the public library. Unfortunately the site has one huge disadvantage: the search options are limited.

There are several different search options available, but unfortunately they only work as designed if you have a specific author or title in mind. You can also look by language, type of file (text, audio, picture, etc.) and several other criteria, including LoCC categories, which I assume to mean Library of Congress Catalogue classifications. But why is there no genre search?

Surely I am not the only one who would like to be able browse the texts by genre or subject? The option is already available in the Subject search, but it is useless because very few of the books have actually been labelled by subject. For example, the other day I wanted to find some mysteries to browse through to see if I could find something interesting but when I made a Subject search for “mystery”, I only got 64 results, but I happen to know there are hundreds of mysteries (true and fictional) in the database. Even where they are labelled, the labelling is sometimes nearly useless because it is not the same for all the books, as for example in the Sherlock Holmes books, where some of the books are labelled “Mystery and detective stories” and others “Private investigators”. While the first label is rather obvious, the second is not, and it’s annoying that, for example, not all the Sherlock Holmes books will come up when you type in “mystery”, and only 2 out of the 5 R. Austin Freeman mysteries available, and so on. And it’s the same for all other genres.

As it is, if I want to browse, I must either browse only the labelled books by the genre I am looking for, missing all the unlabelled ones, or go through the whole list of 20 thousand plus files in order to find titles that may or may not fit what I am looking for, missing many because they don’t have indicative titles or are written by authors I am unfamiliar with.

Even a person with no knowledge of library classification systems can fill in the subject line in the description file for the books with general words and phrases that describe the subject and/or genre of the book, but it has not happened except for a few books. Surely, if a list were to be supplied to standardise the subject labelling and the people who work so hard at scanning, editing and proofreading the texts before they are published were take a moment to fill in the subject line when they turn in their work for publication and others would go to work on the books already in the database, the database would become much more user friendly. I know that I, for one, would use it a lot more.


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