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Lessons from the Internet Bookmobile
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Libraries

The bookmobile metaphor is designed to address the library world. To librarians, it says, you can do better. At the bookmobile conference in Columbus, vendors showed off $300,000 bookmobiles with fine oak bookshelves, computer stations, even mobile satellite dishes. Parked far from these budget-breakers, the Internet Bookmobile costs $15,000 tops, plus the cost of a minivan (the Aerostar was bought from a used car lot for under $4,000). To librarians, the Internet Bookmobile says, with a rich public domain, the Net, and inexpensive desktop equipment, you can wildly improve the quality of the services you offer. You can change libraries from expensive buildings with huge storage and retrieval costs, to a place where books are stored online and printed as desired. Libraries can become a place where books are custom-made.



Even more radically, the Bookmobile says, why should libraries buy copies of public-domain works from publishers when they should be freely available online, and paperback copies can be created for $1. In point of fact, why should libraries lend public domain works at all, when they can just give them away?

Beyond all this, librarians can use the Net as a storage facility for special collections, which are not necessarily in book form. A librarian I met in Columbus, for example, explained that her library in rural Pennsylvania is well known for its genealogy collection, with patrons from around the world coming to research their families. A few days before we talked, someone had come in with several boxes of Grange records found in an attic. With such a collection digitized and online, the library improves preservation, increases access, decreases storage and maintenance costs, and frees librarians from spending time retrieving papers.

Even so, not all librarians are embracing the Internet wholeheartedly. The Library of Congress has received $100 million for digital preservation but few works have been digitized. And Michael Hart, creator of Project Gutenberg, tells a story about a meeting he had scheduled with a local librarian to give him a CD of Gutenberg texts. The librarian wasn't available so his assistant met Hart. When Michael told her, "I'm just dropping these books off for him," and handed her the CD, "She went completely ashen. Her eyes had the look of a deer caught in headlights. That's a look I had never seen before and I've never seen since."

Libraries have the budgets and they have the mission to support the digital future, but do they have the will?

Schools

The opportunities at schools are huge. Schools are strapped by budget constraints and dependent on school districts and state boards to provide one-size-fits-all texts. Public schools could benefit immensely from being able to create books for their students.

Consider what happens when Digital Village put laptops in the hands of fourth to eighth graders at the Belle Haven School in East Palo Alto, California. According to the Digital Village project coordinator, computers in the homes result in increased parent-child interaction, increased focus in the classroom, more time spent reading (on screen), increased computer literacy among parents, and a sense among children of their place in larger world, as opposed to their local community.

What impact would putting books as well as computers into students' homes have? One can imagine increased literacy for both kids and adults (adults in inner-city Baltimore read at the fifth-grade level), more parent-child interaction as kids and parents read to each other, and of course, more success in schools as kids more willingly read their own books rather than assigned textbooks or library books they must return--if they can even find books they want to read in the under-financed schools and public libraries (a teacher in Salt Lake who previously worked in poor Chicago neighborhoods told me the public libraries' shelves there were simply bare; the high school we visited in Washington D.C. didn't even have a library).

Technology is cool, but books are not, right? Yet, when the Bookmobile pulled into the school playground, all the kids wanted books, wanted the low-tech thrill of pulling a paper cutter blade, and were thrilled by the simple activity of folding a piece of paper into a little eight-fold booklet. They were thrilled to have the same books that were no doubt gathering dust in the school library.

Schools can implement this technology for a small upfront investment and incidental costs. And the process of creating books can itself be turned into an educational experience for older children. Schools--especially underfunded inner-city schools--are miserably failing our children. They are growing up illiterate, unaware of their potential and their possibilities. Actively exploiting the public domain in the ways the Bookmobile suggests can radically change this.

Commercial

A few presses, such as Dover Books (the clip-art publisher) and Modern Library, have for many years made strong publishing businesses from the public domain. (O'Reilly's signature book covers of animal woodcuts originally came from Dover Books.) But what commercial opportunities does the Bookmobile concept present?

How about packaging the equipment Brewster culled together into a print-on-demand solution? Consider the words of one participant on the Archive's forums: "I would put out the money in a heartbeat, but don't really have a lot of time to spend learning how to set this all up. I live in a small town in Tennessee, and think it would be a wonderful community service."

Imagine not only schools and libraries buying such a solution but also Kinko's and Barnes & Noble. A few people we talked to were so turned on by the idea of creating their own books, they were talking about buying their own printer/binder/cutter setups. Imagine being able to go into Kinko's to print and bind your book, or finding an old gem in a bookstore and scanning, printing, and binding it as a gift for friends. Imagine B&N turning its own imprint of the classics into a print-on-demand service.

Strange to think about, when the debate is often positioned as Silicon Valley versus Hollywood, but Hollywood can be one of the greatest promoters of the public domain by turning public-domain properties into valuable commercial properties. Since The Secret Garden enter the public domain in 1986, more than a dozen properties have been created, including TV movies, books, audio books, and plays, according to Arizona State law professor Dennis Karjala.

Government

Obviously, government is part of the problem, since it was Congress that passed the 1998 law that locked so many works out of the public domain. But there are many aspects of government. The National Science Foundation has given Carnegie Mellon $500,000 for its Million Book Project. They could give many more grants, not only for the MBP, but also to library science programs, to the study of improvements in OCR technology, and so forth.

The Library of Congress can put the digitizing of public-domain works on the fast track.

The Education Department and state Boards of Education can buy the Bookmobile's print-on-demand system and place it in schools, much as what happened with putting the Internet in the schools.

The Archive is donating unlimited storage space for the digital public-domain library. Surely the government can at least match that commitment.

I'm sure other government employees and those who follow government closer than I do can think of additional government programs that could help speed up the digitization of the public domain.

Conclusion

As I've said here, the Bookmobile is a demo of a public domain application. Traveling "on the bus" has brought to my mind a few ideas for other demonstrable applications. It has also made clear that it is critical to get from "demo" to "shipping product." We should turn not only minivans but also schools, libraries, homes, print shops, and bookstores into book publishing and book scanning operations. In this way the value of the public domain becomes tangible and improved. The more that people actually use public domain works, the more likely they are to contribute to it, and to fight for it.

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.


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