Sunday, February 17, 2008

Resurrecting Lost Books with

One of Isaac Asimov's lesser stories concerned two scientists in the far future who unknowingly reinvent discarded technologies. It was a humorous tale where the 26th-century men "invented" matches, books, and finally a propeller-driven aircraft (to replace laser igniters, computer screens, and anti-gravity cars).

I thought of the old story as I sit down to review, "an experimental non-commercial project to archive and re-publish public domain works," The site "any of the supported sites such as the the Internet Archive, Google Books or Universal Library (books in public domain ONLY) and reprint it using " Millions of out-of-print books back in print, just like that! I learned about from a post on Metafilter and decided to give it a whirl.

In keeping with the theme of this blog I selected the Reverend Samuel Parker's Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1838) an important early account from the first missionary to answer the "Macedonian Cry," the dramatic journey of four Nez Perce men to Saint Louis in 1831 to request Christian missionaries. Parker's 1836 journey to the northwest was sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and his account of the journey was snapped up by eager would-be missionaries and their supporters. It is a work that both shaped the history of the northwest and gives us one of our best descriptions of the region in the fur trade era.

Ordering the book could not have been easier. You find the volume you like on Goggle Books (or the other supported services) and copy the URL. You paste the URL in a box at, confirm your email, and are soon sent a link to an order page at, a web based print on demand service. Hand over your information and credit card number and the order is placed. It really was the work of a few minutes and cost $18.29 shipped.

Eight days later I had the book--my very own 1838 (sort of) edition of this important work:

The print quality is pretty good--not exactly crisp but clear and legible (the picture below suffers a bit from being taken in low light):

Some users of the service have complained that it does not handle illustrations very well, while others have commented that this is improving. The illustrations in my reprint were nothing to write home about, fairly muddy though clear enough to give you the idea. It is a shame they are not better, because mid-nineteenth century book engraving are a wonderful lost art:

The quality of the cover and binding were good enough for a paperback. I liked the very wide margins around each page, room for ample note taking for those of us who read with a pencil in hand. I was quite pleased with this service--it is a real boon for historians of the pre-1928 era! (1928 of course is when modern copyright laws kick in to spoil the digital history party.)

Now of course any book that is available for this service can even more easily be downloaded to your hard drive with a couple of clicks--which is just what I did with the Reverend Parker. On my Tablet PC I can pull up this book, read it or search by keyword, digitally highlight key passages, copy and paste quotations into a paper that I am working with, and otherwise have my way with the text in a fashion impossible with a mere printed volume. So what is the point of reprinting it?

I can see a couple of uses. First, not many of us are comfortable reading entire volumes on the computer screen. I could see ordering reprints of key books in my research and reading them with the same book up on my PC for annotations and quotes. This would also be a great way to assign an out-of-print work in the classroom. Especially for those of us who teach local history or obscure topics where key resources are apt to be out of print.

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