A pitch for ATM-like print-on-demand

October 3rd, 2006 by Ross Scaife

From Jason Epstein’s NYRB article, Books@Google:

Page’s original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices. Only those who have not read the Iliad or Moby-Dick, or Bleak House or Swann’s Way or The Origin of Species, will entertain this improbability. Until human beings themselves evolve as electronic receivers, readers will select such books as these—the embodiment of civilizations—as files from the World Wide Web, whence they will be transmitted either to a personal computer and printed out—a cumbersome procedure resulting in a stack of unbound sheets—or, much more satisfactorily, to a nearby machine not much bigger than an ATM which will automatically print, bind, and trim requested titles on demand that are indistinguishable from factory-made books, to be read as books have been read for centuries.

Meanwhile Google, together with the Gutenberg Project and the Open Content Alliance, and similar programs, has turned a new page in the history of civilizations leaving to us the privilege and the burden of carrying the story further. As part of this effort, On Demand Books, a company in which I have an interest, has installed in the World Bank bookstore in Washington, D.C., an experimental version of a machine such as I have just described, one that receives a digital file and automatically prints and binds on demand a library-quality paperback at low cost, within minutes and with minimal human intervention—an ATM for books. A second experimental machine has been sent to the Alexandrina Library in Egypt and will soon be printing books in Arabic. A newer version will be installed later this year or early next year in the New York Public Library.

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