Friday, 19 June 2009

What is a book if you can print one in 5 minutes?

There exists technology now, available in bookshops and certain forward-thinking libraries, to print a book in 5 minutes from pressing Go, to getting the book into your hands.

This excites me a lot. Yes, that does imply I am a geek, but whatever.

So, what would I want to do with one? well, printing books that already exist is fun but not grasping the potential. If you can print a book in 5 minutes, for how long must that book have been in existence before you press print? Why can't we start talking about repurposing corrently licenced or public domain content?

Well, what I need (and am keen to get going with) is the following:

1) PDF generator -> pass it an RSS feed of items and it will do it's best to generate page content from these.
- blogs/etc: grab the RSS/Atom feed and parse out the useful content
- Include option to use blog comments or to gather comments/backlinks/tweets from the internet
- PDFs - simply concatenate the PDF as is into the final PDF
- Books/other digital items with ORE -> interleave these
- offer similar comment/backlink option as above
- ie the book can be added 'normally' with the internet-derived comments on the facing page to the book/excerpt they actually refer to, or the discussion can be mirrored with the comments in order and threaded, with the excerpts from the pages being attached to these. Or why not both?

- Automated indexes of URLs, dates and commenters can be generated without too much trouble on demand.
- Full-text indexes will be more demanding to generate, but I am sure that a little money and a crowd-sourced solution can be found.

2) Ability to (onsite) print these PDFs into a single, (highly sexy) bound volume using a machine such as can be found in many Blackwell's bookshops today.

3) A little capital to run competitions, targeting various levels in the university, asking the simple question "If you could print anything you want as a bound book in 5 minutes, what's the most interesting thing you can think of to print out?"

People like books. They work, they don't need batteries and people who can read can intuitively 'work' a book. But books are not very dynamic. You have to have editors, drafters, publishers, and so on and so forth, and the germination of a book has to be measured in years... right?

Print on demand smashes that and breaks down conceptions of what a book is. Is it a sacred tome that needs to be safeguarded and lent only to the most worthy? Or is is a snapshot of an ongoing teaching/research process? Or can it simply be a way to print out a notebook with page numbers as you would like them? Can a book be an alive and young collation of works, useful now, but maybe not as critical in a few years?

Giving people the ability to make and generate their own books offers more potential - what books are they creating? Which generated books garner the most reuse, comments and excitement? Would the comments about the generated works be worth studying and printing in due course? Will people break through the pen-barrier, that taboo of taking pen to a page? Or will we just see people printing wikitravel guides and their flickr account?

Use-cases to give a taste of the possibilities:
- Print and share a discussion about an author, with excepts ordered and surrounded by the chronologically ordered and threaded comments made by a research group, a teaching group or even just a book club.
- Library 'cafe' - library can subsidise the printing of existing works for use in the cafe, as long as the books stay in the cafe. Spillages, crumbs are not an issue to these facsimile books.
- Ability to record and store your terms/years/etc worth of notes in a single volume for posterity. At £5 a go, many students will want this.
- Test print a Thesis/Dissertation, without the expense of consulting a book binder.
- Archive in paper a snapshot of a digital labbook implemented on drupal or wordpress.
- Lecturer's notes from a given term, to avoid the looseleaf A4 overload spillage that often occurs.
- Printing of personalised or domain specific notebooks. (ie. a PDF with purposed fields, named columns and uniquely identified pages for recording data in the field - who says a printed book has to be full of info?)
- Maths sheets/tests/etc
- Past Papers

I am humbled by the work done by Russell Davies, Ben Terrett and friends in this area and I can pinpoint the time at which I started to think more about these things to BookCamp sponsored by Penguin UK and run by Jeremy Ettinghausen (blog)

Please, please see: - Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet 2008

Russell Davies UnNotebook: