First Monday

Letter from San Francisco: The Internet Bookmobile

Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive has a dream. No, that's too narrow. He has a lot of dreams as well as the energy and money to realize them. I knew him long before he had lots of zeros in his bank account, and he has always been enthusiastic about his projects at Thinking Machines, at Apple when he developed what became WAIS, the Wide Area Information System - the very popular database in the early days of the public Internet. More recently the San Francisco non-profit, The Internet Archive, was established to collect and making available all of the past Internet information. In a step to distribute this information around the world Kahle made a large gift to the Library of Alexandria which now has a very strong information technology department (see The public search engine for the Archive is the Wayback Machine. At no charge anyone can use the Wayback Machine to search for Web pages unavailable elsewhere. The most recent collection is coverage of the September 11, 2001, events in New York and Washington. At press time had more than 100 terabytes (100,000,000 megabytes) of files.

Another project is the building of a digital library of books that are in the public domain ( A number of libraries and individuals have embarked on similar projects such as Project Gutenberg (at, Liber Liber in Italy (, and the Million Book Project ( Kahle is working with these and others. Last week, Kahle wrote me asking for the names of librarians who would be interested in talking about the importance of libraries and how digital technologies can help. Kahle was preparing for a cross-country trip to publicize the digital library, and The Archive was hosting a party on September 27.

Michael Ward, an e-book publisher and head of Hidden Knowledge ( accompanied me and took the photographs included in this article. We had been in contact since my early experiments with optical character recognition in the early 90's. Ward's Web site includes a number of original e-books for sale as well as some free material such as the Memoirs of General William Sherman, an homage to the traveler Burton Holmes, and a collection of old magazine covers. During the ride from San Jose to San Francisco, I learned that there are many text digitizing projects going on, some well supported and others that are labors of love, especially by science fiction readers. Some of the barriers are technical, but improvements in scanning technology, low cost storage, and better connectivity make the solutions apparent. The growing problem is copyright, and one battle will be fought in early October at the U.S. Supreme Court when the justices hear the arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft ( which challenges the act that extends U.S. copyright protection another 20 years (so that Disney won't lose control of Mickey Mouse!).

There are those who do not care about copyright laws and have Web sites filled with a mix of out-of-copyright material and scanned versions of more recent texts. is trying to do for ascii versions of books and essays what Napster did for music. Others such as, the Open Meta-Archive, and the book sharing on the Usenet group alt.binaries.e-books either ignore or challenge the current laws in the United States and other countries. There is, of course, a lot of lower profile activity that is not publicized. I had met one enthusiast at a recent conference who claimed he has 25,000 books in ascii, and they could be delivered on a $100 80 GB hard drive. He gave away CD-ROMs of his hundred favorite texts. His cost: ten cents.

Kahle's project is completely within the law, but as Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News writes (, the industry that controls much of the music, movies, and text cares little about fair use and is convincing Congress - with generous doses of campaign donations - that future digital technologies, especially those for consumers, must be crippled to protect their interests. They want restrictive laws which would stop the flow of material into the public domain for another twenty years.

The Party

The Internet Archive is housed in an old house in the Presidio, a former Army base in San Francisco. The old building is nothing like the typical high tech venture in this area: tilt-up concrete construction or a multi-floor showplace set in an industrial park. For one thing, survived the Internet bubble. The office is filled with wireless networks, racks of servers, high speed data lines, plasma screens, and massive printers. Out back of the Archive was parked a Ford Aerostar van, covered with bright lettering, "Bookmobile ... Print Your Own Book ... 1,000,000 Books inside (soon) ..." and on the roof was perched a satellite dish.

The bookmobile
(photo by Michael Ward of Hidden Knowledge).

I wandered down to the back of the van where Kahle stood under a small structure. In the shade was a table that held a binder, some books,and a guillotine paper cutter to trim the pages. He explained to those gathered round (including a CBS cameraman) how the printing worked. The books that reside in his archive or others can be downloaded in a number of formats, and some, like The Wizard of Oz, are saved as a set of color page images which are compressed. The bookmobile prints about twenty pages a minute (two on one side of a sheet of paper) and the complete work is assembled by hand, and placed in a cover and bound using a device that heats the glue applied to the spine of the pages. A guillotine paper cutter is used to trim the book. Staff of the Archive were printing other examples inside the office and giving them away to the guests. I grabbed a copy of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, while others were looking at books by Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. Each of them had the look and feel of a good trade paperback in a plain cover.

Kahle was planning to leave from a public school in East Palo Alto, California, head through Sacramento and eastward across Highway 80. He planned to stop at the bookmobile convention in Columbus, Ohio, which usually only welcomes vehicles made by the show sponsors. However, the used Ford van, small as it is, certainly is no threat to the current model for moving books and videos to people far from a branch library.

We talked about other countries which use boats (Venezuela) and camels (Kenya), and carts (Zimbabwe) to bring materials to readers. In my home state, librarians used to ride horses into the remote hollows and valleys in the rural parts of pre-war Kentucky.

Brewster Kahle (left) and Steve Cisler (right) discussing book mobility
(photo by Michael Ward of Hidden Knowledge).

I asked about the connectivity. Kahle said the Hughes Direcway system runs at about 64 kpbs upstream and up to one megabit downstream. Motosat is a company that modifies this consumer product so that it works with a mobile connection. Park the van in a level area and make sure that the southern sky is visible because the antenna must see the satellite. The Motosat system uses GPS to aim the dish and establish a good connection Another company, Tachyon, Inc. is selling a mobile network connection. The Burning Man event has been using one since 1999. This sort of connection is of great interest in other countries and in parts of the U.S. where land lines have not reached. The bookmobile VSAT connection is connected to an 802.11b (Wi-Fi) network which surrounds the van, so anyone in the neighborhood could bring a laptop and connect to the server and choose her own books or copy some that had already been requested.

Network gear in back of van
(photo by Michael Ward of Hidden Knowledge).

What I found inspiring was the way all the technology was assembled off-the-shelf and used with a large collection to deliver a very tangible output that could be used by any reader at very low cost. It was not just a printout; it was a book. Even without a satellite (or wireless) connection, the collection of books could reside in a large cache on a few hard drives and the books accessed and printed locally. Of course the selection would be less than what was offered by or its partners.

Brewster Kahle assembling a book
(photo by Michael Ward of Hidden Knowledge).

A newspaper reporter questioned the practicality of the Internet bookmobile. Wouldn't it be better to print materially more cheaply at a central location and then distribute them normally through book stores, online sales, or libraries? There are large print-on-demand systems such as Xerox Docutech that large organizations can afford. When I worked at Apple we were able to print and bind the proceedings of a conference in the evening and distribute 300 copies the next morning. However, these are enormously expensive. The bookmobile reminded me of an itinerant vegetable cart which is a now a rarity in the United States. Because Kahle is especially interested in providing materials for young people, perhaps it could be likened to an truck that roams a neighborhood selling frozen bars of ice cream, except the books are freely distributed. The Internet Bookmobile is one way of showing people a simplified version of how a book is produced. Of course it avoids the process that begins with an author trying to find a publisher, and for the chosen few, the editorial process that follows.

A stack of finished books
(photo by Michael Ward of Hidden Knowledge).

Kahle wants to attract attention to the effort to build a collection of books, and by ending up in Washington, D.C. during the Eldred v. Ashcroft hearing at the Supreme Court, he can supply a very visual spectacle for the media who have a hard time showing any news when the battle is over intellectual property. Kahle plans to park in front of the court building, set up his press and bindery and give away books to those in the vicinity. I expect he will be hassled by Capitol Hill police, if he can even drive a van near the building.

Trimming a book with the guillotine
(photo by Michael Ward of Hidden Knowledge).

What happens after that? Kahle hopes to find financial support to keep the bookmobile on the road year round. He estimates it will cost $100,000 including the salary for the driver-printer. At the party several people, Including this reporter, expressed interest in taking the vehicle on a tour for a couple of weeks. Because much of my work is in other countries I thought about the practicality of such a mobile system in a place like Honduras or Mozambique. The barriers to a successful tour in the United States are far less than in many other countries, but even a touring unit would not necessarily need a mobile satellite to connect to the Internet. It could connect up a selected stops such as telecenters or schools with an existing connection. As I mentioned earlier, the collection could be cached on a few large hard drives. Assuming there were material of interest in Spanish or Portuguese or the predominant language of the region, the demonstration of the printing and binding would be very engaging. The books chosen might form the basis for a community collection or, as in the present trip, just given to individuals who come see the bookmobile. Kahle has begun sending short messages from some of the stops between California and Washington, D.C. ( He reports the young boys like the paper cutter best of all! You can follow the progress of the trip, make contributions to the effort, and see some of the other bookmobiles in use. End of article


About the Author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He is currently a GLOCOM fellow; the Center for Global Communications is a self-funding, non-profit research institute affiliated with the International University of Japan. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.


Editorial history

Paper received 3 October 2002; accepted 5 October 2002.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Letter from San Francisco: The Internet Bookmobile by Steve Cisler
First Monday, volume 7, number 10 (October 2002),