Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Espresso Book Machine

I had the happy opportunity to visit the Grace Mellman Community Library in Temecula last week. The branch, which I hadn’t seen since it first opened in the 1990s, was recently remodeled. A festive multicolor linoleum-tiled floor now enlivens the children’s room and a previously imposing bank of computers has been replaced by a cozy reading area.

The star of the day, though, was the Espresso Book Machine, a device that prints books on demand. Patrons can either request an item from Flash Books, a database of some 3 million digitized items, or bring in their own manuscripts for publication. The project is funded through a Library Services and Technology Act grant, awarded by the California State Library to the Riverside County Library.

Starting at $8, the cost of printing Flash Books titles is very much in line with today’s mass market paperbacks. Publishing one’s own original book is far more expensive, however. Patrons pay $75 to have library staff prepare their manuscripts for printing. In exchange, they get two copies of the book, plus an electronic pdf file of the manuscript. Additional self-published copies cost between $8 and $15 to print, depending on the number of pages.

The actual printing of the book takes about 5 minutes. (Click here to see the Espresso Book Machine in action.) Pages are produced on one side of the machine, while the other side prints the cover. Once the cover is complete, it slides to the center of the machine, where glue is applied before the pages are dropped onto the inside spine. The cover and pages are then pressed together before the entire book is cut to size—6” x 9” is standard, though other sizes are also apparently available. This being a library, the excess page cuttings are used as bookmarks, p-slips, etc., and, therefore, are not wasted.

It was fun watching a book being created right before my eyes. But even more importantly, there seem to be numerous ways the library’s customers can benefit from this service. Besides the obvious advantage of having access to 3 million Flash Books titles, patrons can also publish an endless array of self-written materials: family histories, journals, teen poetry, learning aids, homeschooling texts, personalized children’s books, etc. In addition, manuscript fonts can be manipulated to create large print versions of books only available in regular-sized type. Staff can also print extra copies of school reading-list titles when all others have been checked out. Patrons can either purchase or borrow print-on-demand books. Those that are not purchased are then considered for possible addition to the collection.

On the down side, the Flash Books component is clunky at best. Accessible only by keyword, the database has no capacity for limiting or refining searches. A search of “Tom Sawyer,” for instance, not only brought up several editions of Mark Twain’s book, it also yielded an endless list of books about Twain, as well as items written by authors named Tom and/or Sawyer! Moreover, the Flash Books database is devoid of any bibliographic or content information other than title and author, making requests for specific editions or topics very difficult. Staff hope to one day use Flash Books in lieu of interlibrary loan, but the database will have to be seriously redesigned (by the vendor) before this can happen.

If the problems with Flash Books can be overcome, I think this project has the potential to add an extremely interesting dimension to public library service. Even without Flash Books, providing the ability to print quality copies of self-published works is an invaluable service for patrons accustomed to creating their own content on the ‘Net and elsewhere. Books, after all, promote literacy, whether they are written by famous authors or the kid down the street, and libraries are all about literacy. I’m excited to see what outcomes ultimately emerge from Grace Mellman’s Espresso Book Machine project.


Ginny said...

Amazing. It looks like a Rube Goldberg machine.

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