Instant printing of books, including rare editions, has arrived in the UAE with the Espresso Book Machine, which downloads, prints and binds in the time it takes to make a latte. Plans are afoot to add Arabic books to the digital catalogue of two million texts, John Henzell reports
The machine seems straight out of a science fiction novel: after a scroll of a computer mouse, a couple of clicks and a mechanical chorus lasting about five minutes, a fully formed book pops out of a slot.
It is even warm to the touch, although it was nothing more than a string of binary computer code on a database in the United States a short time earlier.
For anyone in the UAE accustomed to weeks-long delivery delays for hard-to-find books, the Espresso Book Machine is a bit like combining Amazon's website with a secret time portal.
And it shows that for all the talk of reading devices such as the Kindle hastening the death of traditional books, there are times when technology can help sustain rather than replace the printed word.
Abu Dhabi has two of the machines. They are, however, exceedingly rare. The next nearest one east is in Beijing. In other directions, you have to travel to Egypt or Ukraine to find one.
One of the Abu Dhabi machines belongs to the National Library and will be installed in Al Ain Library this year for anyone to use, while the other has been doing business for the students and researchers at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) since the campus opened two years ago.
Salam Salama, a systems engineer at the National Library, says they have grand plans for the Espresso Book Machine they bought a year ago.
"If you look at the website, you'll find all the books you can purchase on this machine - it's connected to a huge database of two million books," he said.
"You search for the book, the machine will download it from the remote database and it'll print it out and bind it for you."
But Mr Salama said the library planned to combine the machine's print-on-demand capabilities with some of the National Library's huge catalogue of UAE-related material.
"There are no Arabic books yet but we can add our books to the machine so we can print from our own database," he added. "So far we've used it for testing and for researchers.
"Often these books are not available in the UAE and it's not easy to bring [them] in from the US or wherever, so it will be very easy to print in the library. In five or six minutes, it's there for the cost of the printing.
"It is very popular and it's a service we're not providing but, yanni, we're still planning for the cost of the book. We don't have a decision from the management for how much we will charge."
At NYUAD, the Espresso Book Machine has been operating since the first students arrived in 2010.
Virginia Danielson, the interim director of the university's library at the downtown Abu Dhabi campus, said it had proved useful for researchers and students alike.
"We have a historian using the book right now who is using historical sources," she said. "She teaches the history of science and medicine and she's using many historical studies of medicine in India or China or the Middle East. She's using texts from the 19th century.
"Of course the students love it because it's a nicer-looking product than they're used to.
"It's not the centrepiece of the library, although it's a wonderful piece of machinery and we're very glad to have it."
If the ideal use of the Espresso Book Machine is the ability to almost instantly obtain a hard copy of an obscure or out-of-print book instead of hunting for a second-hand copy through internet-based book merchants, the Achilles heel is finding digitised versions of the desired book.
This is one reason why most of NYU's Manhattan campus's collection is not available through the Espresso Book Machine. NYUAD is also bound by American copyright laws, which are among the strictest in the world.
All of this is a slightly paler version of the brave new world envisioned by the American book industry veteran, Jason Epstein, when he proposed in 1999 what became the Espresso Book Machine.
He foresaw bookshops that did not require books on the shelves. If a customer wanted a book, it did not matter if it was in stock or out of print. They would find a title on a database and by the time they had had a cup of coffee, they would be handed a still-warm copy of the just printed book.
In 2007, eight years after announcing his vision for print-on-demand books, the first Espresso Book Machine was installed at the New York Public Library, printing titles that were in the public domain. Time magazine named it one of the inventions of the year.
Mr Epstein predicted a business model similar to Apple's iTunes, where most of the world's commercial books would be available for a modest fee, with the publishers making up for that in the volume of sales.
"Eventually everything will be digitised," he said at the time. "Which means everyone in the world will have the same access to books as people in New York or Chicago."
With no unsold remainders being pulped and no shipping, print-on-demand books would also be greener and more sustainable.
Except things panned out a little differently. Around the same time as the Espresso Book Machine was being developed, Google was pursuing its aim to scan every unique book in the world. But that was stymied when publishers and authors sued Google for copyright infringement, prompting a mammoth legal battle that is continuing.
A proposed settlement reached between the parties was rejected by a federal judge when submitted for approval to the New York District Court in the US last year.
What this means is that Google has scanned more than 20 million books, but only two million are available to print through the Espresso Book Machine, comprising titles that are out of copyright (generally those published before 1923), self-published or from a handful of publishers who have made arrangements with On Demand Books, the company behind the Espresso Book Machine.
All of this brings us to the NYUAD library to see the Espresso Book Machine in action.
Epstein's goal was a machine capable of being fitted inside a bookstore and the final design easily meets that specification. This one could fit in the back of an average pick-up truck.
There is a metal-clad unit with compressors to run the show, topped by what is effectively a commercial printing machine that feeds paper to a separate perspex-clad unit where the pages are compiled, glued together around a heavyweight paperback cover and then cut to size. And the "book-in-less-than-10-minutes" hype proves to be true: an old cookbook, from a file downloaded earlier, pops out of the machine in less than five minutes.
A bigger challenge - a 703-page version of Arabian Nights published in 1914 - takes less than seven minutes to print and then two-and-a-half minutes to bind and cut to size.
Although that does not quite tell the whole story. The computer file had to be downloaded, which takes between five and 15 minutes, and the glue in the machine has to be heated to 350 degrees, a process that requires the Espresso Book Machine to be turned on an hour before its intended use.
The end result reflects some haphazard scanning - the book still has the Harvard Library logo that was on the original when it was scanned and the text varies in size and location on the page. And given that its pages are glued rather than stitched together, it does not feel like it would take long before pages would begin falling out.
But according to the computer screen, this has cost about Dh35 (it generally recommends a retail price of double that).
On the second-hand-book website Abe Books, a reasonable original copy of the same book costs upwards of US$40 (Dh147), not including the cost and delay of shipping.
But for all those caveats, I am holding a copy of a book that is literally hot off the press and which just 10 minutes before only existed as a collection of 1s and 0s.
Nearly 600 years of printing technology has been reduced to the time it takes to have a cup of coffee.
For all the problems standing in the way of the grand visions for on-demand book creation, you cannot help but be impressed.