Can anyone think of a business model for providing the content of old rare books online and/or DVD?
October 3, 2004 9:32 PM   Subscribe

Well, for $125,000 you can now buy a book scanning robot that will scan 1000 pages an hour of any rare book w/out damageing the book (which has always been the hold-up in the past requireing manual labour and shipment to India). Can anyone think of a business model for providing the content of old rare books online and/or DVD?

yes.. spelling could be damaging to the required labor involved.
posted by stbalbach to Work & Money (9 answers total)
Octavo sells high-quality PDFs of extremely rare books.
posted by falconred at 9:57 PM on October 3, 2004

One of the projects I worked on (back in the web boom days when everyone had lots of money) was to scan in a series of rare magazines from the early 1800's. This technology was basically available back then from companies like parc, zeutschel and minolta, but we used interns instead of Indians. There are a few Adobe portfolio companies, Xerox case studies and Amazon e-docs publishers that might be good business models to compare. Here are a few more articles that might be of interest.
posted by milovoo at 1:10 AM on October 4, 2004

Jstor is a non-profit organization, so it's not really a profit model per se, but as I understand they are very successful at what they do.
posted by britain at 5:19 AM on October 4, 2004

An interesting question. You speak of "old rare books" so I presume your core market would be academic libraries, for whom rare books are essential for primary-source research. There is certainly a market here; however, you would be competing against some big players, like Chadwyck-Healey, who already have a wide range of online databases targeted at academic libraries. For example, Early English Books Online contains all books printed in England up to 1700.

The future, I think, lies in exploiting the back-catalogues of microfilm publishers. For example, if I wanted to produce a searchable database of eighteenth-century newspapers, I wouldn't go to all the trouble of scanning the originals; I'd go to Thomson Gale and ask them if they were interested in licensing the rights to their microfilm edition of Early English Newspapers. And this isn't an isolated example; I can think of plenty of other Cinderellas asleep in their microfilm boxes, waiting for new technology to give them the kiss of life.
posted by verstegan at 6:01 AM on October 4, 2004

I wouldn't trust that robot with anything fragile, though. The site didn't give me a whole lot of confidence that the robot would treat a two hundred year old monograph any different than the company newsletter when it came to treatment. Also, how does it handle ephemera such a pamphlets, manuscripts, and the like? Archivists are kinda like Gollum, and I don't know many that would let a cold, unfeeling robot get its claws on their preciousses. So I'd rule out any material truly old and fragile, but that still leaves a whole lot of material to work with.

As scan/print on demand technology in the realm of ILL improves, I'm seeing a trend in the major academic libraries to not be the library of record anymore. Lord knows my library (located at a certain school where a certain sitting Prez got an MBA) is undergoing a vast serials and monograph weeding project where one of our main criteria for discard or offsite storage is "Does anyone else have this?" It's like a big game of "Not It!" where the last library to hold a print copy for archival purposes gets stuck with it. This is for material where it's the information, not the artifact that matters (looking randomly at my desk, I see the 1953 copy of the Report on the Columbia River Power System has been sent offsite where it will likely sit alone for years in a big warehouse right out of Indiana Jones).

So there is a market for reliable, renewable digital/electronic versions of text, but I'm not sure how strong that market is.
First, there are some questions as to the costs of scanning an item and the return on investment. To make it worthwhile, you'd need a large virtual collection (like JSTOR above) to even get libraries interested. It costs more, I think, to maintain a virtual copy of an item than it does to maintain a microform copy, especially when you consider that a microform is a safe bet for future use when compared to electronic mediums that need constant updating to keep with current standards.
Second, marketing your product is a problem. If you can find one of those hidden treasures (they're out there) and market that, that's great, but things would be pretty slow going.
Third, why would the limited number of researchers want to use a new system when the current one we have is proven reliable? The researchers that visit our Historical Collections department are pretty happy just to look at microfilm and microfiche when they need to research something and I'm not sure how willing they'd be to make the leap to virtual copy.

So, to sum up my long-winded, rambing, and entirely pre-coffee answer, yes, there could be a business model for this, but it would need to be enacted by those that already have access to the medium (a library scanning their collection for ILL, a publisher scanning their catalog for licensing, etc) to make it worthwhile. However, a firm that could be hired out to perform these tasks could do okay, I think, on a project basis.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:51 AM on October 4, 2004

The big deal as I see it is not scanning the books per se but having a team of drones who is willing to go through and keyword index it effectively. Our library subscribed to a database called Heritage Quest which is amazing for genealogy researchers. It has about 25,000 [so it claims] family and history books online that you can view page by page, PDF by PDF. This, however, is not the cool part. The cool part is that you can keyword search these books and figure out where in the 900 page History of Wherever your relative is mentioned. We have people who pay $28/year just to have access to this sort of indexing. Of course, hiding this content behind a subscription model means that, once again, you are selling to libraries and institutions which means you can jerk them around on price [don't get me started] but ultimately you have a limited market compared to creating a consumer product. On the other hand the consumer market is still pretty pokey for things like ebooks, despite massive vendor hype and promotion, so I'm still personally also curious what the killer consumer app is going to be for digitized texts.
posted by jessamyn at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2004

As an asside, a friend of mine fell in love with, via the internet, a girl who once dated the guy who invented this thing.

Then he was all like "lets start a company." dispite the fact that he's a slacker-stoner and could really be an asshole.
posted by delmoi at 7:58 PM on October 4, 2004

I know this isn't really an answer to your question, but I would question whether business and rare books ever mix well. The people who need them most (academic researchers) don't have the money. Universities are willing to pay some for access, but if forced to choose between increasingly expensive science journals and something like EEBO (which is a brilliant, though not complete, resource), I doubt they will choose EEBO. (yes, I realise EEBO is for profit - but will the market sustain much more?)

Maybe I am just being a curmudgeon - but it's bad enough that the microfilm has gone commericial (and is too expensive for many universities to buy - same with EEBO). Rare books contain the heritage of humanity - they aren't just another commodity.

But anyways - digitising microfilm saves time, but makes for bad digital copies - some even unreadable (and thus useless). Manuscript especially needs to be digitised properly, to preserve all sorts of things that b/w microform can't. robocop is right that most historians, etc are happy with the microfilm, but that is also because most are scared of computers. The next generation will be very different, and we will be very happy to access digital copies (they can be saved, printed cheaply, used anywhere, any time - and can be searched for by title quickly, instead of having to pore over catelogues, and then scan films to find the 723rd item of 1000 or more.
posted by jb at 3:53 AM on October 5, 2004

I agree with you, jb, the commodification of knowledge is not a nice thing to contemplate -- and financially speaking, EEBO has worked very much to the disadvantage of university libraries, who are (in many cases) having to pay large sums to a private company for access to digital facsimiles of books they already own.

But let's face it, rare books have always been a commodity, and one for which the major university libraries have always been willing to pay handsomely. How do you suppose Harvard and Yale acquired their rare books? They have poured millions of dollars into their collections, often outbidding other libraries at auction. In that sense, there's nothing new about EEBO; it's just another form of collection development.

It can also be argued that EEBO has been a force for good in creating a more level playing-field. In the past, only the very richest universities could afford to build up collections of early printed books; the smaller and poorer universities just couldn't compete. (And this, of course, had a knock-on effect when it came to attracting staff and postgraduate students; if you wanted to work on sixteenth-century literature, you had to go where the books were.) Now, any university that can afford a subscription to EEBO has instant access to a world-class collection of rare books.

Universities know this. When EEBO first came out, I thought that only a few universities would be willing or able to afford it. In fact, a surprisingly large number of universities have been prepared to pay the subscription fee, because they see it as a sound investment. I had personal experience of this at one British university, where the Vice-Chancellor's response, on being told about EEBO, was: "draw up a business plan, and you can have it". When he was persuaded that EEBO would pay for itself (by boosting the university's research rating, and thus attracting more research funding) he had no hesitation in approving the purchase.

I seem to have drifted a long way from stbalbach's original question, but let me try to get back to it. I think there is, potentially, a lot of money to be made from supplying digitised copies of rare books to the academic market. However, it would require a substantial initial investment for no immediate return. If I had $125,000 to spend, I don't think I would spend it on a book-scanner -- but then I am risk-averse and could never be a successful entrepreneur.

A final thought: if this firm can charge $50 or $100 for hard-copy reprints, or if this firm can charge $100 or $150 for print-on-demand photocopies, there must surely be a market for digitised copies of the same material? Perhaps this is the business model you are looking for?
posted by verstegan at 2:42 PM on October 5, 2004

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