Brand New, Again

University libraries are teaming up with presses to scan and reprint rare books from their collections.
August 3, 2009

Rare books dating back to the 17th century will take on a familiar yet somewhat refreshed form when Cambridge University Press officially begins scanning and reprinting original copies from the university library. To celebrate the 475th anniversary of the founding of the press (and 425 years printing books) Cambridge will scan 475 volumes from the library's collection of rare materials, including works by Darwin, Shakespeare, and Charles Babbage. The university hopes to scan an additional 1,000 books by the end of the year, all of which will be available on a print-on-demand basis for $15 to $25.

"The idea came about because we were looking at the library at Cambridge and looking at what a treasure trove it was for books that are no longer circulating because they are so valuable. The only place you can see or use them is through vaults with a librarian," said Erin Igoe, library sales and marketing manager for Cambridge University Press. "We felt that a lot of these books, even though they might be [very old], if we make them available they would be valuable."

The initiative, termed "Books of Enduring Scholarly Value," is the latest in a burgeoning trend of universities reprinting rare books from their libraries. On Tuesday, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor announced that it would reprint 400,000 additional titles from its libraries in collaboration with BookSurge, a company owned by Some of these books are considered rare and hard to find copies, and it is likely that some are the last copies in existence, according to Maria Bonn, director of Michigan Library's scholarly publishing office. Many of the titles will range in price from $10 to $45, the revenue from which will be shared with BookSurge.

Cornell University was one of the first to start printing books on-demand, partnering with in 2006 to put 6,000 titles on sale for reprinting through its Library Bookstore. In February, the university announced that it would expand its collection to close to 90,000 print-on-demand titles based on the popularity the first round of books had received. Some of these books are considered rare or special titles, including at least one collection of entirely rare and special materials.

Kissinger Publishing specializes in reprinting rare and scarce books, and the Public Domain Archive and Reprints Service has over 2.7 million titles in the public domain available for reprinting.

"The technology for putting ink on paper has changed so radically over the past ten years or so that this is not surprising," Robert Townsend, assistant director for research and publications at the American Historical Association, stated in an e-mail. "A lot of the costs come in publishing the first copy. Scanning and publishing older texts, where someone has already paid the first copy costs, is incredibly cheap now, particularly with the kinds of online discoverability and distribution that help to reduce all those costs. Between the searchability of Google Books and the opportunity to buy some of these 'lost' works in print, this is an exciting time even for die hard bibliophiles."

A Developing Process

When Cambridge decided that it would go into the rare book printing business, it began by asking scholars from around the world which books they would like to see reprinted from their original forms. Those books were then scanned using state of the art technology to automate the process, and corrected for blemishes on the pages. Books will then be printed one at a time based on demand.

The press has long been involved with digitization of books, as well as printing on-demand back copies of titles in its catalog. However, the use of books from the university's library represented a new domain for the publisher. "Some of these are titles that weren't available in the free domain. By making them available, we are creating a demand. Because they are scanned and available, people know they're out there," Igoe said.

At Michigan, the reprinting collaboration, which began in 2004, has previously resulted in select titles being offered on Amazon. Now, with hundreds of thousands of books on the market, scholars will have the opportunity to purchase books like The Art of Perfumery from 1857 or Notes on nursing: what it is and what it is not from 1898. The university is looking to recover its costs from printing the books, but said that if any money is made, it would go back to supporting the Michigan Library system.

"We've already digitized them for other purposes. We've made that investment and now we want to deliver it in the format we want. There aren't any costs for us until it's printed. If we only print at the point of purchase, we will recover our costs," Bonn said.

With the reprinting program now four years old, Bonn has noted different patterns in the popularity of certain books. For example, after a bridge in Minneapolis collapsed last year, popularity spiked for a couple books on late 19th century bridge design. Information about another book on beekeeping circulated on a beekeeping listserv, which led to a rise in interest for that book. During election years, political books tend to be more popular. But, unsurprisingly, the relative interest levels in these books seems to pale in comparison to new releases. She noted in a press release that past bestsellers might sell 100 copies and other books that have become popular by topical interest have sold somewhere in the region of 35 copies.

At Cornell -- which has been digitizing works for over 15 years -- the partnership with that began four years ago has provided its scholars with a new way to access old work. According to the Library Bookstore's website, its most popular books for the month of May included the 1857 classic, The Physiology of New York Boarding Houses and A Colored man's reminiscences of James Madison, published in 1865. According to Oya Rieger, associate university librarian for information technologies at Cornell, reprinting is, "not only for scholars. With print-on-demand, although we initially targeted scholarly use, the books are purchased by people who are interested in genealogy or pursuing their hobbies. It's very gratifying to see that these seldom used books are finding new users."

Increasing Access

The reprinting of books that one would normally have to travel to libraries to see begs the question of whether these libraries are in fact competing against themselves by providing the service. Now, those who might otherwise trek to Cambridge or Ann Arbor or Ithaca to see these rare books can instead order them sent to their own offices.

Igoe maintains the scanning of the books is about providing scholars with accessibility. "Not everyone would get a chance to travel to the actual library," she said. "Some of the older books, because they are so fragile, aren't allowed out of vaults. It's a bit of a different universe of books. Some of these books haven't seen the light of day except for something extremely specific."

Bonn agreed, saying, "Really this is a way of enhancing the reach of these books -- people across the world can see them now and people across the world can order them. We are always interested in people using books and people connecting to the collection."

'A Damper on Digital?'

Digitization seems to be all the rage these days, but one result of reprinting could be to bring print books back into the limelight.

"To me, it shows the enduring power of the books. Some people get a little too focused on how everything has to be digital. This reflects the revolution that's going to take place in print publishing," Townsend said. "It shows how it can remain viable in the future. We're still a good ways away from the point when the digital book in whatever form is going to replace the value of the printed book."

Though digitizing projects like Google Books work well for shorter pieces of writing, reprinting solves the oft-encountered scholarly problem of having to print out a 300 page digitized book. Print-on-demand technologies as a whole, he said, make it very easy to obtain single copies of desired books. Townsend added that many have speculated Google could join the rare book reprinting industry once it deals with the controversy surrounding its Book Search settlement. "The technology that makes it reasonable for university presses now makes it entirely reasonable for Google," he said.

Print books, more than digitized books, usually maintain a certain level of quality, Rieger said. For this reason, while digitization is useful in many regards, people still like to maintain their bookshelves. "At production level, we are more conscious about the quality of scans to make sure they yield themselves to high-end printing. When digitizing, we need to set the image quality level in order to support print-on-demand," she said. "Yes, you have digital, but if it is in poor shape such as missing pages and poor image quality, then you are not able to offer a good product that will be useful and valued."

Rieger said that people should look at online books as a "new media" and a "new genre," rather than as the certain future of the written word. "Although there are some disciplines and subjects where we could assume [digitization] is a replacement for print, we need to be careful about equating print with digital. They continue to fulfill the different needs of scholars. We're not seeing [print-on-demand] as a damper on digital, we're seeing it as being careful about making deterministic decisions."


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