"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Sept. 30, Belle Haven School, East Palo Alto, Calif.
“Woohoo! We’re making books!”
The Internet Bookmobile has arrived at its first stop: the playground of Belle Haven School, a public K-8 school in this working-class community of Latino, black and Pacific Islander families. Brewster Kahle, director of the Internet Archive and mastermind of the Bookmobile, is printing, binding and cutting books for a crowd of fourth-graders. After a girl works an oversized paper cutter to make the final cut that turns some computer printouts into a finished copy of “Alice in Wonderland,” Kahle holds the finished product up. “That’s it, we made a book,” he says triumphantly.
The Internet Bookmobile is a van on a mission: to drive across the country, stopping at schools, museums and libraries, making books for kids and spreading the word about the digital library that is the Net. From East Palo Alto, Kahle and his entourage — his son Caslon, friends Art Medlar and Michael Robbin, and me — will hit a school in Salt Lake City, a bookmobile librarians conference in Columbus, Ohio, the International Inventors Museum in Akron, the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, and another school in Baltimore.
To finish the trip off, the Bookmobile will park in front of the Supreme Court on Oct. 9. Inside, the justices will be listening to arguments in the case of Eldred vs. Ashcroft, a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 1998 “Mickey Mouse” law that has extended copyright terms for an additional 20 years.
Technically called the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, the law is called “Mickey Mouse” because it went into effect just before the copyright to Mickey’s first feature, “Steamboat Willie,” expired. And it is the potentially dire consequences of endlessly extended copyright — the possibility that creative works, like books, are prevented from ever going into the public domain — that impelled the creation of the Internet Bookmobile.
Pointing at signage on the bookmobile — a 1992 Ford Aerostar equipped with mobile satellite dish, duplexing color printer, desktop binding machine and paper cutter — that says, “1,000,000 books inside (soon),” Kahle yells, “We want to have a million books for everyone to use. We can’t build a library to hold a million books — the building would be just too big! So we use the Internet. We download a book from the Internet. We print it out, put a binding around it, you get to pick the book you want. Today we have ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ And there’s a really awesome book, my favorite book, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ We got it from a used bookstore and scanned it. Now it’s always on the Internet. The idea is to put books on the Internet. We can do this with these books because they’re in something called the public domain. That means they’re free! We think there should be lots of books in the public domain.”
Kahle cooked up his mission of insta-book freedom just one month ago. Working with a few of the 6,000 texts on Project Gutenberg — Michael Hart’s 30-year-long effort to publish on the Net the public domain classics of Western literature — Kahle, his wife Mary Austin, and employees of the Internet Archive formatted books such as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in Microsoft Word and designed covers for them, complete with the Internet Archive logo.
A $1,200 binding machine turns the printouts into finished books. “These don’t look like books; they are books,” a visitor to the Belle Haven event said. The books aren’t perfect: There are a few typos, some bad line breaks, and straight quotes instead of curly quotes, but they still look remarkably good. With a MotoSAT dish on top of the van, Kahle was able to cram a remarkable message into the back seat of a 10-year-old minivan: The Internet can be a digital library filled with the full array of human knowledge. Technology allows us to bring this massive resource anywhere, not just for reading on screen, but for creating books themselves.
Yvonne Casias-Young, Belle Haven’s principal, gets it. “Students who don’t have access to libraries, who don’t have transportation can now get access,” she says. “As long as we have the Internet and a printer, we can create these books for students and the library. These books never have to be checked out … we can always print out another copy if a kid wants it.”
Tuesday, Oct. 1, Newman School, Salt Lake City
The bookmobile is a print-on-demand-mobile. It changes the notion that books are a limited resource. It changes the basic concept of what libraries do, as well as the idea that schools need large book budgets. In a print-on-demand world, where the cost of creating a book runs about $1 and the capital costs run under $10K, libraries don’t lend books, they give them away. Schools aren’t dependent on the textbook readers the state board of education buys at a cost of millions of dollars — every district, every school, every teacher can create their own reader at minimal cost.
“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” says Seth Marshall, community education manager for the Newman School. “This presentation needs to be made to administrators. Our library is limited in terms of the number of books we can offer students.”
“This is the coolest thing ever,” says Paul Black, a sixth-grade teacher at Newman. “Where I taught in Chicago, the school library has hardly any space, hardly any shelves, and what shelves they do have, have hardly any books. You walk in the library and there’s no there there. Having something like this could completely change kids’ lives. My last job was in an adolescent lockdown facility. The resources are just pitiful. This would be such a great thing for them.”
Yes, the bookmobile is driving proof that universal access is possible today. But there is a problem. And its name is Mickey Mouse.
Oct. 1, 2002, Room 116, Motel 6, Rock Springs, Wyo.
Kahle has been trying to turn the Internet into a digital library since 1988, when he started work on WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers), a pre-Web system for searching through large collections of text. At WAIS, Kahle brought the New York Times, Dow Jones, and Encyclopædia Britannica to the Net. After selling WAIS Inc. to AOL, he started Alexa Internet, which used a browser widget to collect user traffic patterns and recommend sites based on those patterns, and the Internet Archive, which aims to keep a copy of everything ever posted to the Web. (Alexa was sold to Amazon in 1999 while the Archive continued as a nonprofit.)
Since 1996, the Archive has been crawling the Web and collecting all of it. So far, Kahle has collected over 100 terabytes of Web. Earlier this year, Kahle traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, to present the Egyptian government with a copy of the Archive. “Mrs. Mubarak was grateful for the donation of 100 terabytes of Web, 3,000 hours of Egyptian and U.S. government television, 1,000 movies, and a book-scanning facility,” Kahle says as we sip motel plastic cups of single malt scotch. “Then she said, ‘But I love my books.’ This woman has started more libraries than Carnegie. At that moment, I realized, if I wanted to build a digital library, the Web would not be enough. We need to do books. You can’t build a library without books.”
In fact, Kahle has been broadening the Archive’s collections since early this year. Besides the Web, the Internet Archive hosts a collection of television coverage of Sept. 11, 1,200 ephemeral films from the Prelinger Archives, Project Gutenberg, etree.org’s archives of live concert performances by the likes of Dave Matthews and String Cheese Incident, and an archive of more than 8,000 CD-ROMs donated by Macromedia.
Why add all these other collections to the Internet Archive? Kahle says he was motivated by a paper prepared for the Library of Congress called “Why Archive the Web?” The paper found that the Internet is the “information resource of first resort” for millions of readers, Kahle says. “I found this exciting and frightening. A hundred million searches happen every day by tens of millions of users. But the Net doesn’t have the best we have to offer.”
Oct. 3, Urbana, Ill., home of Michael Hart
For hundreds of years, we have put the best of our culture in books. And while the authors of the Constitution offered “limited” protection to authors, they were clearly interested in enriching the public domain. The copyright term was originally set for 14 years, renewable for another 14 years, with the condition that the work be submitted to the Library of Congress. Congress has extended the copyright term 11 times in the past 40 years.
“Universal access to human knowledge is what we as a culture and as parents need to do, and we’re screwing up. Ninety-eight percent of all books are inaccessible to my child for any amount of money,” Kahle says, as we pull into Urbana, Ill. Ninety-eight percent of all books in copyright are “terminally” out of print, according to estimates by Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford University and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Eldred case. Universal access to human knowledge? The law is designed to prevent access to knowledge — at least the human knowledge that no longer earns its keep in bookstores and movie theaters.
If the Supreme Court upholds Sonny Bono, it will leave the door open for Congress to perpetually extend copyright. If that happens, it is reasonable to assume that no more works will ever enter the public domain. Even if the court finds against the law, the decision wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that new works automatically enter this super-lengthy copyright protection.
While the future of the public domain is on trial in Washington, digital librarians aren’t exactly uploading works in the public domain at a blistering speed. There are around 20,000 books online for free downloading. The Library of Congress contains 26 million volumes. Michael Hart started Project Gutenberg over 30 years ago by keyboarding public-domain books by hand. Today he has over 100 volunteers around the world and 6,000 books online. He hopes to hit 10,000 books by the end of 2003.
Kahle wants to pay a surprise visit to Hart, the patron saint of online books, since Urbana is on the way to our next destination. When we arrive at his house, there is a car parked in the driveway but no other signs of life. A sign on the front door says “RING BELL LOUD. RING AGAIN. PAUSE. THEN RING AGAIN.” Following these directions yields no response. Peering in through the front door window, Kahle utters a low, “Wow, this place is amazing.”
Art Medlar calls Hart on his cell phone. “Michael Hart? We have a delivery for you.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a bookmobile.”
“Oh cool, I’ll be right there.”
After posing for a few publicity shots at the wheel of the bookmobile, Hart reluctantly lets us into his house but forbids picture-taking. In his cave of a basement office, the green characters of a VT100 monitor glow out from a mountain of papers and books. On a shelf above his desk sit boxed sets of ancient WordPerfect manuals. Half a dozen or so clocks line his desk. Reaching for a magazine article to show Kahle, he upsets a precariously balanced monitor stand on which stacks of papers sit. “Uh, oh. This is a problem, this is a big problem!” He finally finds a copy of Windows for Dummies and props the shelf up before disaster strikes. Pointing to a mattress he keeps in the office, Hart explains that it’s not uncommon for him to fall asleep at the keyboard, so the mattress saves him the trouble of negotiating his way to his bedroom in a stupor. “One day I got up before the sun came up. I came down here to work and by the time I went back upstairs it was night. I missed the entire day. So I have all these clocks to remind me to take a break.”
Michael Hart is one of those people who straddle the line between visionary genius and obsessive nutcase. “You know that episode of “Star Trek,” when they look in the computer to find some 20th century book that tells them what to expect when they go back in time,” Hart says. “How do you think those books got in the computer? That’s me.”
“I have an ulterior motive in dropping by,” Kahle announces. “I want to convince you to drive this buggy around the country next year.”
“Oh, man, I am so busy. I can’t do anything until 2004. I’m on the final leg of a 30-year marathon. I can’t do anything until I get 10,000 books.”
“If I get you your books, will you go?” Kahle prods.
“Yes, if you get me to 10,000 books, I’ll drive your buggy to all 50 states. After that, I’ll go to 50 countries!”
“Great. You’ll get your books.”
Mission accomplished, sort of, the bookmobile heads on to Columbus.
Oct. 4, 2002, Great American Bookmobile Convention, Columbus, Ohio
Raj Reddy — “god of computer science” is how Kahle describes him — has trained generations of technologists at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. He has laid down the gauntlet for “universal access to human knowledge” (the phrase is his). His vision is to put a million public-domain books online and he has received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the effort. As the bookmobile travels the U.S., a ship carrying a container filled with Reddy’s books is headed for China for a mass scanning effort. Even when scanning by the containerful, a million is a lot of books.
To grow from 20,000 to 1 million, the Million Book Project needs to change from the obsession of a few gifted computer scientists to a widespread, decentralized movement. Kahle wants people to bring their personal documents — grandfather’s book, letters found in an attic — to him. The digital library needs librarians. We found them at the Great American Bookmobile Conference.
“We don’t even know what treasures are out there in books that are out of print and still under copyright. Every book has some value even if it’s just to the author and his descendents. We need to open our libraries so kids can learn from the full breadth of our knowledge,” Kahle says.
Michael Hart’s line — “The Internet brings the history of the world to your town and the history of your town to the world” — strikes a chord with the librarians. One attendee of the conference is a clerk with a rural Pennsylvania library that prides itself on its genealogy collections. “People come from all over the world to research their ancestry,” she says. “We’re looking for a system to digitize our books. Some of them are quite rare, all of them are getting dog-eared. This answers everything we’ve been looking for.”
Since Kahle is volunteering unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth, “we can scan all this stuff, put it on the Web, and people can view it without having to travel to us. Then if they want to see the originals, they can still come to the library.”
Oct. 5, 2002, Pittsburgh
It’s still four days until the big day at the Supreme Court. We still have books to make at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and schools in Baltimore and Washington. Many of us are exhausted from covering 2,000 miles in four days, but Brewster is even more invigorated than ever. He can’t wait to stand beneath the stone-carved words “FREE FOR THE PEOPLE” that adorn the Carnegie and make books. The slogan, idealistic as it may be, fairly captures Brewster’s wildest dreams for the Net. A massive library containing the full breadth of human knowledge and experience, freely and easily accessible to everyone on the planet. A library truly free to the people.
Richard Koman is a freelance writer in Sebastopol, California.More Richard Koman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)