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Print on demand

In defense of the non-virtual

Seelye Martin 25 January 2010

Books, version 1.0

"There are times when we need books that can get dog-eared and sweaty"

It’s Friday night, January 22, and I’m at the University of Washington Book Store buying a birthday present for my daughter. When I’m done, I wander over to browse in New Books. In this section, there is a new Espresso Book Machine that is quietly grinding away. A little less than 2 meters high, its bottom half has transparent walls, through which I can see an almost 19th Century scene of four motors running a series of belts that extend into the upper half.

Around the back of the machine, a color laser printer is moving cover-stock paper in and out on the interior, and at the side, there is a large-screen computer monitored by an operator. As I watch, a book appears from a slot in the side of the machine, then slides down a chute onto a collection tray on top of several other same-sized books.

“How big a job is this?” I ask.

“One hundred books”, he says. “They’re going out tonight to Port-Au-Prince.”

“What are they?” I ask.

“Take a look”, he says, pointing toward a large open carton.

I look down into the box, with its two stacks of just-printed books, Haitian Creole/English Pocket Medical Translation, in the first stage of their road trip.

There are times when a book belongs on a flat screen, but other times, we need books that can get dog-eared and sweaty, and scribbled in, and even bloody. With all the hype about digital readers, let us not forget the value of the printed text.