The Obama Time Capsule: A Participatory Book Breaks New Ground

, sets the stage for a new kind of book publishing, a participatory book created in part by the people who buy it.
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Photographer Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt have broken new ground in publishing with what can best be described as "event books" as far back the early 1990s with their 24-hours books. Their latest, The Obama Time Capsule, sets the stage for a new kind of book publishing, a participatory book created in part by the people who buy it.

Rick, whom I've known for many years, called me a while back to talk about The Obama Time Capsule and the unique site he's created where buyers can personalize and add photos to the book. (Disclosure: Rick gave me a complimentary copy to personalize for this article.) Having captured days in the life of the United States, cyberspace, and many countries and states in photo books, he decided to try a radical experiment in print-on-demand publishing.

"It's not available in any bookstore," Smolan said as we began talking about The Obama Time Capsule. "The challenge—I made the challenge intentionally—I wanted it be all print-on-demand. Whether you customize it or not, it's a great book." He assembled photos taken by photographers and friends, most unseen before the book appeared, combining them with essays and infographics that make the book an entertaining read. My kids, both teenagers, flipped right past the personalized parts of the book I ordered and read the main text and photo essays with real interest. Few books grab their attention that way.

The Obama Time Capsule is a fantastic memento of the election for a Democratic family like ours, but it could easily be personalized for any number of other institutional uses. A kindergarten teacher could place her students pictures and art in the book to use as a teach tool that engages during the next election cycle (one page allows a drawing by the buyer, or their kid, to be inserted among other drawings by kids). In the long run, though, The Obama Time Capsule will be remembered as setting the standard for participatory books about many topics.

Some sites have dismissed the effort as pure novelty, like placing one's face in a fake Time magazine cover, but I think The Obama Time Capsule marks an intriguing beginning in publishing, because it represents the kind of service an artist can provide in a deeply mediated society. Smolan has created a frame through which readers can look at the Obama candidacy and election with touches of their personal experience to memorialize how they personally shared in the experience.

"It's not the point of the book to be Zelig-like, morphed into a picture at the inauguration," Smolan said. Rather, The Obama Time Capsule site, which buyers can visit after purchasing the book at Amazon, lets readers add their name to the cover, e.g. "Rick Smolan, Jennifer Erwitt and The Ratcliffe Family." Inside the book, buyers can customize the dedication, add their pictures to montages of campaign events and supporters, and insert an image on the back page (to the right, I am the fat guy with the microphone, asking a question of Sen. John Edwards at the time). It's the kind of subtle participation by readers that will make the book stand out on their bookshelf or coffee table: "Look, that's you." Then, the book carries the story forward.

The result is a book that, while framed by Smolan and Erwitt, embodies a personal statement about the buyer's feelings about the 2008 campaign.

Some folks will say this is part of the "cult of Obama," but that isn't the point. The same kind of book could be produced based on any event in history. Woodstock. The 1989 Revolutions. 9/11. The 2004 Election. Those are just a few of the kinds of events that people participated in, directly or as spectators at a distance, that they would like to memorialize and make their own in some small way. They'd also like to share that perspective with others by giving a book composed in part by themselves to a friend or family member.

Of course, there are many subjects and situations that could be trivialized by this approach to publishing, which is why I think the artist driving the title is critical to the success of a book, even one personalized by each reader. For example, it would be easy to imagine all the people who tinted their Twitter avatar green in order to show support for the Iranian Green Revolution wanting to memorialize that uprising and congratulate themselves for their support for it. Only after the movement faltered and the green tint disappeared from many Twitter pages would that have been seen to be trivializing serious events for the Iranians who actually were protesting. Authorship, as Smolan practices it, wouldn't stoop that low. The public disdain earned by someone who did try to exploit self-congratulatory "revolution" supporters would, at least, force them to acknowledge the shallowness of the publication. This is why authorship and editorial judgment—accountability—remains important.

People make symbols of things all the time. In this case, the creative force is provided by an author and, through a templated Web services, provide readers the opportunity to participate in the making of an historical document. Smolan likens The Obama Time Capsule to a memory book his mother kept about John F. Kennedy in which she also kept her children's grade reports and pictures. That earnest act of commemoration inspired Smolan and shows how even "ordinary people" can contribute meaningful frames for collective acts of creativity.

I recommend The Obama Time Capsule for anyone who was involved in the 2008 campaign or who simply want to remember the election of our first black president, among the many reasons there were to celebrate the results last November. Your personal touch will make the book a unique memento that will last for generation. It shows what photographers, writers, editors, coders, and readers can create, a lasting document of value.

A couple notes on the book quality. The book, which is printed in Seattle at RPI on a Hewlett-Packard Indigo Press, is bound with a personalized cover on very high-quality New Page Sterling Ultra Digital acid-free paper. It’s made to last. The book was produced in association with Hewlett-Packard with support from Google, Facebook, AOL,,, and Amazon's EC2 cloud services.

One hectoring review dismissed the book as not original because many print-on-demand and self-publishing services exist (this in response to a comment by one of the sponsors of the book, not the author's statements). That seems to have willfully missed the creative role of the author in this book.

There's a lot more information and you can order and compose your copy at

Here are some more images from inside the book:

Interior spread from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread of Obama and supporters on the campaign trail from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread depicting The Competitors chapter, from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread showing world response to the election, from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior info-graphic spread illustrating Obama's grass roots organization, from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread of showing world reaction, from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread of the inauguration from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread of Obama and supporters on the campaign trail from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread of showing world reaction, from The Obama Time Capsule book.

Interior spread from the Brand Obama chapter of The Obama Time Capsule book.

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