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This old book

Research scientist at CMU aims to 'eternalize' the printed word

Monday, January 26, 1998

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The computer screen and the printed page have never had an easy relationship. Both feel alternately threatened by and suspicious of the other.

Robert Thibadeau

Enter Robert Thibadeau, a research scientist in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. He aims to improve relations between the old and the new.

"A book is a production by people," he says. Many books, especially older ones, have distinct "personalities," evident in their size, their illustrations, the shape and color of their type, the look and feel of their paper.

On a computer, of course, all that is lost. Text might appear in fancy type, on a colored background, but, in general, onscreen text is, well, just that.

With his antique-books project at Carnegie Mellon, Thibadeau is trying to "capture the entire production" of an old book, complete with torn pages and typographical oddities. "We're basically trying to eternalize that book as it is," he says.

The project is part of a larger "digital library" effort to digitize and store books electronically. Most of those books - a catalog of which exists on Carnegie Mellon's Web site - exist simply as text.

The antique-books project aims for something different. Thus far only a few books are posted on its Web site (at ), and they are what Thibadeau describes as "good reads."

"The History of New England," for instance, published in 1847, is reproduced with remarkable fidelity, right down to the yellowed paper and smudged ink. "It's a much more pleasing esthetic experience" than simply reading it as black text on a white screen, Thibadeau says.

But transferring the book from page to screen is not easy. Thibadeau and Evan Benoit, an undergraduate with whom he developed the method, wanted an accurate image of the book but did not want to create a huge graphics file that would take a long time to download.

In a complicated process, their program first reproduces the blank page, then "prints" the type onto it - similar to how the process happens in the real world. "We used very advanced technology on these books," Thibadeau says.

Yet the question remains: Will people read it? Even Bill Gates has said he finds it difficult to read anything longer than a three-page memo on a computer screen. The man who travels the world promoting "the Web lifestyle" prefers the printed word.

Thibadeau has thought of that. As a kind of experiment, he's written a book - "I'm not a writer," he says, "I just wrote it for fun" - and posted it on the World Wide Web. Called "Metafire," it's a 372-page science-fiction novel. And Thibadeau has rigged it so that people have to read the book online; it's very difficult to download.

The results are not exactly encouraging. Since the book has been posted, at, an average of one person per week reads the entire book. (Thibadeau can keep track of individual readers and how far they get at each reading.) Often he or she will read it in several large chunks, although, Thibadeau says, "there was one person from the University of Washington who read the whole thing in one sitting."

"Metafire" is not on the Web in the same way "The History of New England" is - like most books online, it's simply text. It may be that people are more willing to read a book online if it looks more like a real book.

Bernadette Callery thinks so. The museum librarian at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, she is working with Thibadeau on a project to select some books from the museum's collection to undergo the Thibadeau-Benoit method, as Thibadeau calls it.

"I was intrigued at the prospect of selecting the material," she says. "It's really the opportunity to create a new reading experience." She hopes to create an exhibition on the diplodocus dinosaur next year, the 100th anniversary of its discovery.

It could include newspaper clippings of the era, the original scientific paper heralding its discovery and other documents, all posted on the Web. "It will allow us to provide access to material that is fragile," she says.

Thibadeau says the advantages of digital libraries go beyond the practical. Computers can easily store text, images and sound in a fraction of the space they would take up on a library shelf.

The project at Carnegie Mellon, which is called the "Universal Library," is especially ambitious. "Our goal," its mission statement reads, "is to spark a lasting movement in which all the institutions responsible for the collection of mankind's works will place those works on the Internet to educate and inspire all of the world's people."

Books aren't yet obsolete, and probably never will be. But if Robert Thibadeau's ideas catch on, the whole world may be able to share the same copy.

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