Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Potatoes in print

By Thomas C. Leonard

The University of California libraries have digitized millions of volumes and now will reprint the old ones, not covered by copyright, for anyone who wants to own them.  "Mass digitization" and "Print-on-Demand" came together thanks to help from the wizards who run Google, the Internet Archive, Hewlett-Packard, and Amazon.  But now that we are up and running we have entered unfamiliar territory:  the potato fields of Wisconsin.

The best-seller for the first six months is "Potato Development Work in Wisconsin." This is a pamphlet authored by the Wisconsin Potato Growers Association in the spring of 1914.  I turned my attention away from our dot com friends, puzzling out why 200 people rushed to buy this book in 2012.

Foodies?  This is possible because the 64-page pamphlet is filled with description of what we now call heirloom varieties of the spud and diseases to watch out for.  We have been tipped off to the lure of the garden and field by the experience of the University of Michigan in a similar effort to open old books.  A volume on bee-keeping was one of their most popular titles.  But if sales followed a back-to-the land theme, we might expect this to be apparent in Wisconsin.   I wrote to the director of the University of Wisconsin libraries.   "Amazing!  No buzz here on any crops," my friend Ed Van Gemert wrote back.

I gave the volume to Berkeley's Dean of the College of Natural Resources, knowing he could see far more in it than I.  Keith Gilless is a Wisconsin Ph.D. who recalls hours well spent in Ed Van Gemert's library.  More to the point, he recalls driving across the potato county of the state countless times with his wife en route to his in-laws for delicious meat-and-potatoes dinners.  Keith and his wife loved the little book but deny being the mysterious purchasers.

My theory about why potatoes are capable of producing a sales bump is that readers do not care so much about the tubers as they do about the people.  Looking for your roots, this potato volume yields a lot of leads.  There are 30 pictures of potato pioneers in this pamphlet, far more than the shots of potatoes.  This was recognition of otherwise anonymous Americans and some three hundred farmers are singled out for their work in the fields.  For those doing family history, this may be a unique record of the achievements of relatives.   Print-on-Demand is not Potatoes-on-Demand, it is People-on-Demand.

“Amazing!” is the right call on where digital libraries are taking us, or so it seems at http://uc.bookprep.com/

Tom Leonard, University Librarian