From the main steps of the Central Branch of the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), few patrons notice the 6-by-4-foot contraption in the window. On its face, a chassis of translucent black Plexiglas houses a series of belts, rollers, brushes, trays and cables wired to a PC. On the rear, three office printers jut from the black box that rests on a raised platform hugged by a wooden railing.
It looks like an overgrown copy machine, but the Espresso Book Machine 1.0 is a printer of the future. The device makes it possible for anyone to print professional-quality books on site quickly and cheaply.
An aspiring publisher can download a book from a database of more than 2 million copyrighted and public domain titles, or bring in his or her own manuscript on a portable hard drive. The user designs a cover using the machine's software, and the Espresso prints the pages, glues them together, secures the cover and trims the book — all in around five minutes. When operating at full capacity, the device can produce up to 60,000 books a year at a penny per page.
The Espresso Book Machine (EBM) was donated to the New Orleans Public Library Foundation in February 2007; it spent a year in storage and was installed in June 2008. But it's barely been used since — until now.
Imagine you downloaded an album on iTunes and listened to it on your iPod, but decided you would like the album on vinyl, which is long out of print and difficult to find. In the age of Kindles, Google Books and iPhones, the EBM gives patrons an entree to the printed word that emphasizes the physical object. "It is part of this much larger trend of letting people access material however they want," says Josh Hadrow of Library Journal. "I like switching back and forth between my computer, my iPhone, and a bunch of different things, and this adds one more option. It is not either/or anymore."
There are 12 EBMs installed around the world, and NOPL is the only public, nonuniversity library with the machine. Other locations include the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the University of Michigan Library in Ann Arbor and the McGill University Library in Montreal. A handful of bookstores also own the machine. The University of Michigan is digitizing its entire collection and making previously rare titles available through the EBM.
In Manchester Center, Vt., the Northshire Bookstore uses its EBM to publish everything from cookbooks to corporate reports. The store also offers a complete publishing package that includes professional editing, cover/text design and consultation on marketing and distribution. Blackwell Bookshop in London primarily uses the machine to produce rare and out-of-print titles, but it also allows consumers to publish their own books.
"It is a machine that can do anything anyone wants it to do," says Dane Neller, CEO of On Demand Books, which manufactures the EBM. "We were leaving it up to New Orleans. We envisioned using it for educational purposes. But if the library wants to use it for self-publishing, if they want to get public domain books to people, if they want to get copyrighted books to people, if they want to not have to spend as much money shelving product — they can print one book at a time. It is intended to give content to people as easily as possible."
The possibilities for using the EBM are intriguing. Sixth graders from McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts could publish their personal essays and put the anthology into the library's circulation. New Orleans presses could publish the work of local artists and writers on demand and with lower overhead. Tulane history students could bind their theses and enter them in the library's archives. Determined genealogists could finally uncover their family history, armed with a bound guide to the library's resources produced by librarians. Users who would like four or 400 copies of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer could print the public domain title — or any another book with an expired copyright — for about $5 each. And per the 2008 NOPL Master Plan, the device could help the institution develop "a world-class library system for the citizens of New Orleans." Despite growing enthusiasm at the foundation, though, protocol and access for the EBM has not been determined — and there are no specific projects in the pipeline.
"What I would really like people to appreciate about the Espresso Book Machine is that this is an example of many things that we are going to try at the public library," says Irvin Mayfield, chairman of the library board.
Executive Director Bruce Astrein of the NOPL Foundation, the library's fundraising and philanthropic body, which manages the device, hopes the EBM will be in operation by early October. "If we have a way to help encourage the reading of books, the distribution of books, the availability of books through the library vis-a-vis the machine, then in tough economic times it is one more nice thing that the libraries can be involved in," Astrein says.
The foundation plans to use the technology as a community resource. By providing more books, Astrein hopes to address multigenerational literacy challenges, health topics, environmental issues and neighborhood improvement. The library also will strive to publish books supporting New Orleans' musical and culinary traditions. "We want to be able to work with the community and others outside of the library community to drive home the message that certain books are available or could become available," says Astrein, who has reached out to the local community for ideas.
"I'd like to see the library hold a series of well-publicized public workshops that would make the technology involved with creating the books through the machine accessible to any New Orleanian with a library card," says Anne Gisleson, a creative writing teacher at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Gisleson, who also manages Press Street, a local nonprofit arts agency, adds, "They could also hold workshops on any number of related topics like memoir writing or book design, since there are so many great writers and designers in town. I'd also like to see them partner with small, local, nonprofit presses, since printing can be such a huge, almost prohibitive, cost. And of course, individual projects in schools and retirement homes and other community centers."
Booksellers and publishers welcome the machine and say they are excited by anything that gets people reading. "In principle, I think it is a great idea," says Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books. "Libraries, like bookstores, are an important part of making a community literate. We are working on parallel paths in a way that can be supportive of each other."
No one seems worried about being undersold by the EBM. "I certainly do not think it will affect the market in a negative way," said Bill Lavender, managing editor at the University of New Orleans Press. "What it does is encourage people to think about books and what a book can be."
Saying "Espresso Book Machine" at the main branch of the NOPL feels a little like saying "Watergate Hotel" in Nixon's Oval Office. Despite the appliance's bright future, obstacles crippled the machine's arrival in New Orleans, and questions regarding the use of the machine bring nothing but cryptic answers from some library administrators.
On Demand Books initially donated the EBM to the library to restock books lost after Hurricane Katrina. The device came from the World Bank Bookstore in Washington, D.C. The machine's operating costs were funded by a $353,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funded software development, project manager's salary, supplies, and related services. Ron Biava, previous director of the NOPL Foundation, remembers, "Dane Neller said to me, 'You have lost books; you need books; we have a machine that prints books. There has got to be a way that we can help you.'"
In June 2008, when the machine was installed, the foundation had ambitious plans. Biava was excited by the idea of using the EBM to bypass the need for interlibrary loans by printing requested titles and selling them for $5 apiece. EBM project manager Megan Albritton generated the "NOPL Popular Classics" series, which featured 24 titles for partner schools, including Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Wizard of Oz and Robinson Crusoe. Biava says he thought the series could be sold as a New Orleans literary souvenir and include writers like Mark Twain and Lafcadio Hearn, forming a new source of library funding.
Initially, the machine faced physical challenges. The library had to build a platform because the EBM was too heavy for the floor. Public domain books didn't come with covers, so the library foundation had to learn to design them. Then, they say, the machine was not printing covers correctly (a problem that can be fixed easily, according to the manufacturer). Post-Katrina, the library was already short-staffed by almost 80 percent.
In addition, the development phase of the EBM coincided with personnel changes at the library, including Biava's and Albritton's resignations. During that time, the implementation delay created complications for some projects, which ended up being printed elsewhere. Running Home, a collection of short stories by NOCCA students edited by Gisleson and designed by John Costa, worked with the library for almost two years before the project was finally printed on an EBM in New York City. Invisible Cities, an exploration of New Orleans architecture through photographs and short essays created by the Tulane School of Architecture, was eventually printed by conventional means at Tulane. Despite its potential, the machine produced only a handful of titles.
With Albritton's departure, she says, the library lost the only person trained to operate the machine — which was almost a final blow for the device.
"There was no interest in the [EBM]," Albritton says. "A lot of the board members didn't understand what the machine was for, and what we were doing with it. All they saw was that we were spending money on it, and they didn't like that this money was being spent on it. There were some board members who wanted to return the machine. There was a lot up in the air, and it was not a very friendly working environment."
Mayfield explains that the library had many challenges post-Katrina. "We may have got [the EBM] in, but we didn't really have the capacity to put it to use, and that is kind of the basic mold of where we are with the public library."
Despite all the previous challenges, Astrein, executive director of the library foundation, believes the NOPL is ready for the machine's second debut. Over the next nine months, the library will open six new branches and introduce new leadership, including a new director. "The library probably wasn't in the most readied state or position in terms of staffing or an overall plan or direction to really take advantage of the machine when it first came here," Astrein says. "I think we are in a much better place to do that now."
While the EBM is not likely to affect the profit-and-loss statements of local publishers like Pelican Press or diminish the value of a Jane Eyre first edition at Faulkner House, the machine promises to offer readers in New Orleans a new twist on an old love affair.
"I think folks have to recognize why I am so excited by the changes, because we actually now are putting people in place to do a lot of this stuff," Mayfield says. "I think there was a perception that there was a lot more available two years ago than there really was."
"There are so many incredible stories in this city," Gisleson says. "The book machine is an opportunity for people to have control over their own stories, to have a tangible manifestation of them bound between covers."