New Media Notes: Printing the Public Domain

Here’s a fun new online option for historians that I heard about on the Digital Campus podcast from the Center for History and New Media. From this basic interface (www.publicdomainreprints.org/) you can request reprints of out-of-print books that are in the public domain.

Here’s how it works. As we all know, libraries are furiously digitizing their collections, sometimes with the aid of new media giants like Google and Microsoft. Under U.S. copyright law, anything published before 1923 is now in the public domain and we are all free to share, reproduce, etc..

As some of you may know there are several commercial services out there that offer “print-on-demand” books. Generally, these services have been used for inexpensive self publishing. So for instance, you can buy my college roommate’s book of poetry. Or you can buy Eric Lee’s book on How Internet Radio Can Save the World.

The genius behind PublicDomainReprints.org simply brings these two services together. The interface allows you to search for public domain books on GoogleBooks and the Internet Archive, and then submit a request to the print-on-demand service Lulu to make the book available for purchase. About 24 hours later, they send you an email letting you know that the book is ready, and you can buy it. You can also download the PDF file for free.

I decided to test drive the service with a few esoteric labor volumes, and a classic of early sociology (Robert Park’s “The Immigrant Press and Its Control”)–all of which are either unavailable in my library or perpetually checked out. The prices were reasonable: around $7 for the proceedings of the 1921 Conference of the Workers Education Bureau (about 100 pages); $16 for Park’s “Immigrant Press” (more than 500 pages).

We’ll have to see what the physical volume looks like. The PDF images are a little foggy. I’m a little dubious about the quality of the binding on a 500 page book. But I’m willing to be surprised. If the quality is good, I could see using this for course assignments.

One note of frustration: the book has to be clearly in the public domain or they will not let you print it. For many users I’m sure this won’t be a problem. But I wanted to print some of the obscure social movement pamphlets that have been scanned. Unfortunately, many of those don’t include a publishing date. Therefore, it is not possible to conclusively say they are in the public domain. As if the Industrial Workers of the World would care!

Next on the New Media Notes theme: I remain confused by the appeal of facebook.

Update: Just got my books in the mail. For me the real test is whether this is better quality than a photocopy, and on balance I think the answer is yes. At first glance, it is a mixed bag. The text on each of the books is a little foggy, as is often the case with photocopies. And of course, you get all the underlining and marginalia in the original. So that’s a draw. The binding on each book seems strong (we’ll see over time), the covers are plain but serviceable. One book, “The New Unionism in the Clothing Industry” (missing from our library stacks), is pretty clean. At $11.99 for a 340 page book, I’d say it’s better than photocopying. Robert Park’s “The Immigrant Press” ($15.99 for 490 pages) suffers from one big problem: at the bottom of every page is the statement: “Digitized by Microsoft” with the registered trademark “R”. Not a very nice thing to have to look at *on every page*. So the lesson is, when downloading a scanned public domain book, look for the cleanest copy and avoid those scanned by Microsoft.

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