Before Google Books, we took on-demand publishing to the streets

Google and On Demand have a deal to enable on-demand publishing from the public domain books Google's scanned. But way back when, the Internet Archive was scanning and printing on the road - and distributing books for free.

Back in 2002, Brewster Kahle invented the Internet Archive Bookmobile. This was a low-tech affair. Starting with scans or plain-text of public domain works ("The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland" were favorites), the bookmobile could spit out bound paperbacks in, say, 20 minutes. It carried an HP printer, a guillotine cutter and a desktop bookbinding machine.

Maiden voyage: A cross-country tour from East Palo Alto to Washington DC, timed to coincide with the Supreme Court's oral arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft. I went along and documented the trip for Salon. I also spearheaded an effort to take the Bookmobile international, working with Brad deGraf to create a nonprofit, Anywhere Books, and going to Uganda to create the Uganda Digital Bookmobile.

Both in the U.S. and Uganda, a key component: the books were free. Brewster envisioned a world in which free (as in beer) books were plentifully available and stood as a vibrant choice against the pay-for-paper model.

But I'm not writing a memoir here. I just don't want our little bit of history to be lost as you read that Google is applying technology and scale to the same basic activity with one twist. The books are still free (as in choice, that is, custom-printing of public domain books) but they're not free (as in beer.) CNN reports:

Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

Scanning public domain books is a good thing and having a way to order up the book you want with quality binding is swell. But this is a very first-world approach to a third-world application.

My regret with the Uganda bookmobile is that we didn't adequately hook up with a nonprofit on the ground who could identify and distribute really relevant books for a population, say subsistence farmers or refugees. We were going into schools where there were no literature books but there were textbooks, and giving away literature.

So when you read in the CNN article that "[One] reader, who works with subsistence farmers in Africa, currently uses PDFs of old farming techniques to teach still-relevant skills," you see that there's something disconnected between the value and the cost. In the neediest African farming areas, ten bucks is out of the question.