For most purposes, I'm a firm convert to the creed of the digital book. I don't much like reading on a screen, but when it comes to looking something up — a date, a spelling, a "fact" — it's just as easy and just as satisfying to click a couple of times as it would be to get out of my chair and walk over to the bookcase.
And, of course, there are many, many times when the book I need isn't on my shelves anyway. Nowadays, most of the time, there's no need to get in the car and drive to Princeton or New York: more and more of the print resources I rely on are available on line from such repositories as the marvelous Biodiversity Heritage Library.
But still, there are times and there are circumstances when nothing can beat the convenience of the codex.
I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about sparrows. Among the many older volumes I've turned to again and again is, naturally, Robert Ridgway's Birds of North and Middle America, still — 111 years after the publication of the first volume — the best collection of detailed plumage descriptions available.
Indeed, so useful is the book that I finally decided I needed a copy of the real thing — paper and ink — to sit on the corner of the desk while I work. Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that Part I, the sparrow volume, was on the scarce side in the used book market, and expensive; $50, the best price I could find, buys a lot of macaroni (or a little bit of dog food).
Enter the Espresso Book Machine. For $23, I could have a copy of the book printed out for me at McNally Jackson (or any of another 40 or so locations in the US), and for $6 more, they'd send it to me by express mail, saving me a trip across the Hudson to pick it up. Worth a try.
Hurricanes and snow storms meant that the mailing wasn't as express as planned, but the book arrived, and I'm impressed. It's the same size as the original (a real brick), and the quality of the copy is as high as that of the original print (which isn't saying much, admittedly). The paper is not of the highest quality, with the yellowish tinge I associate with central European photocopies, but it's certainly acceptable, and looks better and reads easier than most of the library copies of the original printing I've seen.
My only disappointment, and a mild one, is in the binding. Perfect bindings (oh bitterly ironic name) are cheap and quick, and the weight of the book block's 700+ pages is guaranteed to break this one sooner or later.
More significantly, the openings have essentially no gutter, and though I haven't noticed any actual loss of text, there are a few letters stuck so far down in there as to be discoverable only with the aid of a flashlight. This may simply be a peculiarity of the original book (from the University of Wisconsin) from which my copy was scanned, but even if it is a result of the EBM's trimming and binding process, this problem should be less likely to arise in volumes that are less massive than this.
Many classic bird and natural history books are available this way, though the EBM website doesn't invariably make searching for them easy. Bibliographical data are few and vague for many titles, especially those published in several volumes; it took two exchanges of e-mails before McNally Jackson and I were both certain that they were producing the correct part of BNMA for me — their selection pages list only the title of the larger work, leaving the individual volumes unidentified.
I expect that to improve as digitization efforts grow more disciplined. Meanwhile, the EBM is a great way for the researcher to get quick, relatively inexpensive access to paper copies of important reference works many of us don't own. And next time I'm in New York, I'm going to buy something just to watch the machine work.
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