Salon.com Technology | Riding along with the Internet Bookmobile
Angered by a law that extends copyright terms for 20 years, a crusader named Brewster Kahle wants to use the Internet to make books available to everyone.
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By Richard Koman
Sept. 30, Belle Haven School, East Palo Alto, Calif.
"Woohoo! We're making books!"
The Internet Bookmobile has arrived at its first stop: the playground of Belle Haven School, a public K-8 school in this working-class community of Latino, black and Pacific Islander families. Brewster Kahle, director of the Internet Archive and mastermind of the Bookmobile, is printing, binding and cutting books for a crowd of fourth-graders. After a girl works an oversized paper cutter to make the final cut that turns some computer printouts into a finished copy of "Alice in Wonderland," Kahle holds the finished product up. "That's it, we made a book," he says triumphantly.
The Internet Bookmobile is a van on a mission: to drive across the country, stopping at schools, museums and libraries, making books for kids and spreading the word about the digital library that is the Net. From East Palo Alto, Kahle and his entourage -- his son Caslon, friends Art Medlar and Michael Robbin, and me -- will hit a school in Salt Lake City, a bookmobile librarians conference in Columbus, Ohio, the International Inventors Museum in Akron, the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, and another school in Baltimore.
To finish the trip off, the Bookmobile will park in front of the Supreme Court on Oct. 9. Inside, the justices will be listening to arguments in the case of Eldred vs. Ashcroft, a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 1998 "Mickey Mouse" law that has extended copyright terms for an additional 20 years.
Technically called the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, the law is called "Mickey Mouse" because it went into effect just before the copyright to Mickey's first feature, "Steamboat Willie," expired. And it is the potentially dire consequences of endlessly extended copyright -- the possibility that creative works, like books, are prevented from ever going into the public domain -- that impelled the creation of the Internet Bookmobile.
Pointing at signage on the bookmobile -- a 1992 Ford Aerostar equipped with mobile satellite dish, duplexing color printer, desktop binding machine and paper cutter -- that says, "1,000,000 books inside (soon)," Kahle yells, "We want to have a million books for everyone to use. We can't build a library to hold a million books -- the building would be just too big! So we use the Internet. We download a book from the Internet. We print it out, put a binding around it, you get to pick the book you want. Today we have 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Huckleberry Finn.' And there's a really awesome book, my favorite book, 'The Wizard of Oz.' We got it from a used bookstore and scanned it. Now it's always on the Internet. The idea is to put books on the Internet. We can do this with these books because they're in something called the public domain. That means they're free! We think there should be lots of books in the public domain."
Kahle cooked up his mission of insta-book freedom just one month ago. Working with a few of the 6,000 texts on Project Gutenberg -- Michael Hart's 30-year-long effort to publish on the Net the public domain classics of Western literature -- Kahle, his wife Mary Austin, and employees of the Internet Archive formatted books such as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in Microsoft Word and designed covers for them, complete with the Internet Archive logo.
A $1,200 binding machine turns the printouts into finished books. "These don't look like books; they are books," a visitor to the Belle Haven event said. The books aren't perfect: There are a few typos, some bad line breaks, and straight quotes instead of curly quotes, but they still look remarkably good. With a MotoSAT dish on top of the van, Kahle was able to cram a remarkable message into the back seat of a 10-year-old minivan: The Internet can be a digital library filled with the full array of human knowledge. Technology allows us to bring this massive resource anywhere, not just for reading on screen, but for creating books themselves.
Yvonne Casias-Young, Belle Haven's principal, gets it. "Students who don't have access to libraries, who don't have transportation can now get access," she says. "As long as we have the Internet and a printer, we can create these books for students and the library. These books never have to be checked out ... we can always print out another copy if a kid wants it."
Tuesday, Oct. 1, Newman School, Salt Lake City
The bookmobile is a print-on-demand-mobile. It changes the notion that books are a limited resource. It changes the basic concept of what libraries do, as well as the idea that schools need large book budgets. In a print-on-demand world, where the cost of creating a book runs about $1 and the capital costs run under $10K, libraries don't lend books, they give them away. Schools aren't dependent on the textbook readers the state board of education buys at a cost of millions of dollars -- every district, every school, every teacher can create their own reader at minimal cost.
"Wouldn't that be amazing?" says Seth Marshall, community education manager for the Newman School. "This presentation needs to be made to administrators. Our library is limited in terms of the number of books we can offer students."
"This is the coolest thing ever," says Paul Black, a sixth-grade teacher at Newman. "Where I taught in Chicago, the school library has hardly any space, hardly any shelves, and what shelves they do have, have hardly any books. You walk in the library and there's no there there. Having something like this could completely change kids' lives. My last job was in an adolescent lockdown facility. The resources are just pitiful. This would be such a great thing for them."
Yes, the bookmobile is driving proof that universal access is possible today. But there is a problem. And its name is Mickey Mouse.