or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Printing Books on Demand

   November 17th, 2009 Brian Herzog

POD Printer at Harvard Book StoreA couple weeks ago I posted about new options for printing books, in which I mentioned Google's Expresso book-on-demand printer. I found out that the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge has one, so I went to check it out.

I still really like this as a source for out-of-print books to fill out a library's collection, so my "test book" was The History of Chelmsford, written by Wilson Waters in 1917. My library has lots of copies of this, but I chose it because:

  • I knew it was in Google Books
  • It is huge (almost 1000 pages) and I wanted to see how well the book-on-demand printer handled it
  • It has text, maps, illustrations and photographs, and I was curious to see how they reproduced

The people at the Harvard Book Store were incredibly nice and informative. I told them who I was and what I was doing, and the owner Jeff and shop assistant Amanda explained each step of the process to me, as well as told me about their experience so far with the service.

Typically, the process (photos) is completely automated and books take less than ten minutes to print start to finish (including download time), and cost $8 (which is the price announced by Google in a press conference, so the store is honoring it). However, since the book I wanted was so long, everything was expanded: downloading alone took five minutes, and it had to be printed in two volumes, because the printer can only handle about 500 pages at a time. Since it had to be divided, Amanda had to find the best place to split the book, and then do some quick calculations to figure out how thick each textblock would be to make sure the covers fit properly. And due to the extra labor involved, my two books cost $10 each, with the whole process taking about 40 minutes.

A few other interesting points:

  • There were no ghost hands, but some of the pages were not cropped correctly - this caused them to be shrunk when printed, and in some cases the page numbers got trimmed off
  • It seems like the quality of the printing was excellent - the only real variable is the quality of the scan
  • The paper they use is acid-free and feels slightly glossy. I asked how long they expect the paperback covers and binding to last, but it's so new they're not sure
  • Color is only available for the covers - book pages are b&w only
  • I asked if they consider themselves "the publisher" for these books, and the answer was no - they are "the printer" because being a publisher involves more legal responsibility for the content of the books
  • Jeff said they've had the printer for about a month and a half, and it is used three or four 15-40 times a day (which was more often than I expected, but then again, the store is right across the street from Harvard. Nerds.)
  • Their catalog interface doesn't just search Google Books, but allows the printing of any book in the public domain, as well as self-published books
  • I don't want this to sound like a commercial for the store, but Jeff said he'd be interested in working with libraries - contact him for details

I tried to photograph the interesting parts, so check out my Books-on-Demand Printer flickr set or watch the slideshow below:

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/26/09

   August 1st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Print StationOur pay-for-print station has been acting funny lately - and by "lately," I mean the last 2+ years.

As you might expect, reference staff spends a lot of time answering "how do I print" questions. But software and hardware glitches aside, sometimes the PEBCAK errors can be entertaining. To wit, I helped these two patrons on the same day:

Patron 1
A teenage patron was printing out a webpage. I showed him how to print, and then walked with him to the print station. When we got there, we found someone had left a quarter and two dimes on top of the pay box. People sometimes do this to be nice to the next person, or they leave it there if they find change in the machine.

I could see the kid eyeing it, and finally he asked, "did someone leave those coins there?" I said, "yes, you can use it to print your job if you like." "Or I can take it," he replied, smiled conspiratorially, and scooped it up and put it in his pocket.

Then he proceeds to take out his wallet, remove enough coins to pay for his print job, and insert them in the pay box.

Patron 2
Later a very stylishly-dressed woman needed help printing. I showed her that her job would cost fifteen cents, so she digs in her coin purse for coins. First she pulls out a dime and a Canadian nickel, which she puts on a table and then slides apart. Next she fishes out a few pennies and a Euro. She reaches in again and pulls out what looked like an old Chinese coin with a hole in the middle and an American nickel.

Wile inserting the fifteen cents, she says in a tone obviously meant to impress me, "whew, all this foreign money - I suppose I should stop traveling the world so much."

But that's all fine - as long as the printer prints when it's supposed to and doesn't take peoples' money, I'm happy.



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