Blown To Bits

The Bookmaking Robot

Friday, November 6th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I have been negligent in not commenting on the Harvard Book Store’s marvelous print-on-demand engine, dubbed Paige N. Gutenborg. For those of you in the area, the store is right across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Yard, and the press is right ¬†on the main floor — just keep walking straight ahead to the back of the store. In a few minutes, you can have any public domain book printed that is available via Google Books. Some copyrighted works are available too, but the big buzz is over the access to copies of old books, many in foreign languages, of which only a few libraries may have copies. What you get is just what you want — a printed book, on good paper, bound and trimmed, and with a full-color soft cover in the original design. The machine prints, binds, and trims, in only a few minutes. And for only $8 per book.

While I was watching this process a couple of days ago, the book being printed was an old French text — a professor had ordered copies for his class. A nearby shelf has a variety of other samples.

The first book printed on this press was a copy of the first book printed in North America — the 1640 hymnal, The Bay Psalm Book. In a wonderful loop of history, it had been printed in Cambridge, only steps from where the Harvard Book Store printed the copy 369 years later.

Paige is fascinating to watch. Even more than its (her?) marvelous automation, it is simply energizing to witness the bits, coming from heaven knows where, becoming atoms in front of your eyes. The imagination runs wild. Maybe, if I ever move, I’ll just throw all my books out and have new copies printed of anything I discover I actually want. I can’t find half the books I own anyway. If you don’t like that fantasy, come up with a better one of your own.

I have to congratulate Jeff Mayersohn, the president of the store. He has seen independent book stores die, one after the next. Even the Harvard Book Store, which offers outstanding service and a knowledgeable staff and is operating in a book-loving community if any such still exists, must have felt threatened. He’s decided to make the technology work for him rather than kill him. Good for him and good for the store. I wish them the best.

Bonus for those of you able to drop in: the trimmed edges are there for the taking. They are bound booklets of blank pages, an inch or so tall and six or eight inches wide. Kids can create their own books by writing or drawing on the pages. How neat is that?

Comments are closed.