I encountered my first espresso book machine over spring break while touring the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.  The huge five feet tall and seven feet wide contraption promised an entire paperback book with colored cover in just minutes or the time it takes to get an espresso. I admit I was tempted to purchase a book just to see this remarkable goliath of a machine in action.  While the espresso book machine is impressive, it begs the question: should libraries be investing their limited resources into on-demand publishing technology? Furthermore, is on-demand publishing the future of paper book publishing, or is this just another passing technological fad that libraries risk falling for?

Why an Espresso Book Machine?

 OnDemandBooks, the company that manufactures the espresso book machine, envisions this technology as part of “the overall digital revolution taking place in book publishing” which will “replace the centralized supply chain for the distribution of physical books with a radically decentralized, direct-to-consumer distribution model”  The New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business library was the first library to install the Espresso Book Machine in 2007.  Since then, several academic and public libraries in the United States have invested and tested the espresso book machine, including the University of Utah, University of Michigan, Darien Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Sacramento Public Library and the Riverside County Library.

Getting over the hefty price tag (The Brooklyn Public Library was reportedly quoted an initial price of $125,000.  Meanwhile the price tag for a commercial book store buying it outright and without an educational discount could be as high as $150,000), there are several attractive benefits to investing in this new innovative technology.  It supports a creative and intellectual community by giving anyone the opportunity to independently publish their work for a nominal cost.  One of the primary reasons The Brooklyn Public Library invested in an espresso book machine was to put the library in a better position to support Brooklyn’s creative community.  In academic libraries, both students and professors benefit from being able to format and self-publish their work at a low cost. Self-publishing can be especially appealing and beneficial to graduate students’ for their dissertations and writing students who want to circulate their creative works.

Through the espresso book machine’s database and alliances, users can print books from a selection of three million titles.  Users, who are willing to pay for the printing costs, have instant access to books which are out of print, and that are not in the library’s catalog or in the user’s preferred language.  Furthermore, students who prefer reading traditional paper books can print any digitized materials with the espresso book machine, as long as it does not violate copyright.  Professors especially benefit from having the power to send students to the library to print books for class if the bookstore is sold out.

Having an espresso book machine positively influences library collections by supporting a somewhat patron-driven acquisition model.  By giving the users the ability to print and request what they want instead of having library staff predict, sometimes erroneously, avoids large unused physical collections taking up large spaces within the library.   Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collection in the J. Willard Marriott Library stated the Espresso Book Machine frees “libraries from the enormously wasteful practice of building huge just-in-case collections based on inevitably erroneous guesswork about future patron needs, the EBM could greatly increase both efficiency and effectiveness, allowing a library or bookstore to give researchers exactly what they need within minutes of the realization that they need it, all while reducing the clear-cutting of rainforests, the carbon emissions from pallet-laden delivery trucks, and the twin scourges of returns and remainders

Is the Espresso Machine the Future? More Questions

Rick Anderson of the Marriot Library at the University of Utah does not regret purchasing the espresso book machine.  He admits there are several downsides and limitations to purchasing this early start-up technology including the price, having to warm up the machine for an hour before printing, restrictions with publishers to print new titles, and a poor interface and metadata for the machine’s database of printable titles.  While the espresso book machine is an amazing piece of technology, libraries should not get caught up in its glamour.  It is an expensive investment and many important questions must be answered first, both at the individual library level and at the field level.  Should libraries provide publishing on demand services and will this become standard?   Given the growth of demand for ebooks and other digital mediums, could on-demand publishing really just be a fad and restricted to a limited niche? Or is on demand printing really the future of publishing and therefore a technology libraries should invest their limited resources into?

For libraries, the espresso book machine should never be about making a profit.  Rather, it should be an investment to further the library’s benefit to the community. Investing in expensive technology simply to impress our users and cater to their every whim for convenience is not a worthwhile use of our libraries’ money and resources.  But, if the espresso book machine can further the capabilities of young intellectuals, community writers, spread of knowledge and improve our communities, then I think libraries should begin to look for opportunities to invest espresso book technology.  If on-demand publishing is the future, hopefully the espresso book machine will improve and become more affordable to our libraries over time.