Print-on-Demand: Every Book, its Printer?

Not every book is a best-seller, and not every thesis is destined to be a page-turner.

I am reminded this fact almost daily when cataloging items, particularly theses, that are about obscure or incredibly specific topics–I wonder how the purchase of the item, not to mention its physical occupation on a shelf or in a shelf-management system, can possibly be justified given its narrow scope.  Ultimately, it isn’t my call to make–I’m one small cog in a much larger machine dedicated to fulfilling customer orders, and so these books move on toward their ultimate destinations.  But still, I wonder at the utility and sense of their initial costs and the expenses incurred in their storage and management, and there are definitely times that I wonder if certain items will ever be checked out even a single time in their lifespan at a library.

Collection development and management is a science and an art involving data collection, statistical analysis, and patron surveying tempered with  a great deal of plain old educated guessing about what readers will want or need to read.  I realize that’s a gross oversimplification of the activity but it is, at is core, true.  Anyway, I’m not here to create a treatise on the process of managing a collection, but to discuss a technology that has the potential to change its face in some pretty exciting ways–on-demand printing.

What is Print-on-Demand?

Print-on-demand technology is exactly what it sounds like–technology that allows readers to select, print, and bind books on demand in a short period of time for a low cost.  Print-on-demand machines can be purchased outright or installed under agreement in book stores, schools, or libraries–virtually anywhere interested in hosting a location.  Users select a title from available databases of out-of-print, obscure, or sometimes even in-copyright materials, pay a reasonable fee, and wait for the machine to print and bind their book.  Print-on-demand technology can also be used as a means of self-publication.

Advantages of Print-on-Demand

Multiple public libraries are using print-on-demand technology, including the New York Public Library, University of Utah, University of Michigan, Darien Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Sacramento Public Library, and the Riverside County Library (Szkolar, 2012).  Print on demand:

  • Provides low-cost, instant access to means of self-publication,
  • Provides access to texts used in classes,
  • Provides access to ebook alternatives,
  • Provides access to out-of-print or obscure materials,
  • May help readers access books in a preferred language.  (Szkolar, 2012)

Print-on-demand is particularly useful in the context of collection development and management as it helps support one facet of patron-driven acquisitions.  According to Dorotea Szkolar, “by giving the users the ability to print and request what they want instead of having library staff predict, sometimes erroneously, avoids large unused physical collections taking up large spaces within the library” (2012, para. 5).  This, in turn, saves space, time, and money–all precious commodities for the library.  Print-on-demand also may extend the lifespan of some lesser-known, low-demand items that may otherwise stay out of print and be lost to time.

Concerns About Print-on-Demand

There are, of course, concerns about print-on-demand technology.  It is expensive–most sources list prices for machines ranging from $125,000-150,000, so the cost to purchase the technology isn’t to be taken lightly.  This pricetag may limit availability, creating a network that excludes some libraries.  Some librarians are concerned that if print-on-demand becomes too inexpensive and readily available, it may represent a threat to the continued need for libraries.  Personally, I disagree with the latter fear, but it is expressed in some blogs and articles.

The Lowdown

What new knowledge, skills or understanding have you gained?  (Description)

This week, I learned about print-on-demand technology.

How can you use what you have learned?  (Application)

Print-on-demand technology is a new and exciting option that can and has been integrated into multiple public and academic libraries.  I can use the knowledge that I have gained to discuss print-on-demand as an option for library adoption consideration.

How does it relate to library work?  (Reflection)

I think that print-on-demand represents an exciting opportunity for libraries to extend the definition of maker and idea labs.  It provides a great way to simultaneously augment and trim the library collection.  By diverting funds that may be used in preservation of out-of-print materials or acquisition of obscure items that may never be used into a print-on-demand machine, libraries may save collection costs in the long run and be able to utilize funds more effectively and creatively.  It’s also a great way to support the community through providing options for self-publication.  I think it’s a technology that libraries should seriously consider adopting.

What resources (activities) have helped you to understand and/or have been interesting to use?  (Activities/Resources)

Anderson, R.  (2013).  Print-on-demand and the law of unintended consequences.  LibraryJournal.  Retrieved from

Blummer, B. B. (2005). Opportunities for Libraries with Print-on-Demand Publishing. Journal Of Access Services, 3(2), 41-54.

Maloney, J.  (2012).  One book, light and sweet.  Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved from

Rapp, D. (2011). Print-on-Demand Meets Public Libraries. Library Journal, 136(20), 22.

Szkolar, D.  (2012).  Espresso book machines: Should libraries offer on-demand publishing?  Information Space.  Retrieved from


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