Simple, High Quality Book Scanning: Part I

I am a book hoarder. My parents made the mistake of transforming my bedroom from a closet holding an over-sized bunk bed into a closet with wall to wall library shelves when I was twelve and from that point forward I considered it my mission to fill book shelves. Sadly, my addiction only worsened when I went to college and suddenly had a reason for buying and keeping vast quantities of books. Every class, every research project, and every Christmas was a further justification to add new volumes to my library. The intervention came when I went to study in Oxford last year.

My Oxford reading lists would have needed their own suitcase had I brought them with me, and would have cost me far too much if I’d bought them at Blackwells. The (then) newly minted iPad seemed the best choice as it could read books from Amazon’s Kindle format as well as Mac’s native iBooks app. But, most academic book I needed for Oxford were not available from either source. The simple answer was to scan them and read them with a .pdf reader. Little did I know that there is nothing simple about scanning books–at least for the time being.

The Three Big Options

1) Nondestructive Commercial Scanners – There are wonderful contraptions available for book scanning that leave the pages and bindings intact and produce beautiful results. However, the machines from Atiz like the BookDrive DIY at $5700, for example, are cost prohibitive unless one is from an institution or the trust-fund set.

2) Nondestructive Do It Yourself (DIY) Scanners – The fine folks over at have been producing plans and custom software for book scanning for quite a while now. If one is willing to take the risk to construct the scanning frame, light source(s), and buy a couple of Canon point-n-shoots, they can provide everything else. However, I know that in my hands, such a project would quickly escalate until it cost as much as one of the commercial options out of the fear that the final product would not live up to my expectations without a custom machined titanium frame and super-low dispersion coated glass, and well… all that other stuff that promises better clarity and stability.

3) Destructive Commercial Scanners – Destructive scanning starts with cutting the spine from a book either yourself with a stack cutter ($250) or having a copy shop do it for you ($1-2). Once freed from the binding the pages can be scanned by a sheet feed scanner like my Epson GT-1500 ($300). The scans can be pre or post processed using different software schemes and provide the very highest quality digital books possible.

Destructive scanning was and continues to be the best option for my needs.  For the price of a flat-bed scanner with an automatic document feeder and OCR (optical character recognition) software I can turn most any book into a professional looking .pdf file that I can carry with me in my laptop or iPad.  However, I have learned a few things since I first began scanning books that are worth noting that I will share in Part II.


5 comments on “Simple, High Quality Book Scanning: Part I

  1. Cody Darr says:

    You are destroying books =( Can they be put back together?

    • maphman says:

      That, unfortunately, is true. But I hold the tears back at night by reminding myself of two things. 1) The books that I buy for scanning tend to be the cheapest/ most beat up clean (non marked up) copy that I can find. That is, I’m not destroying valuable first editions, I’m cutting up books that were likely to find themselves propping up AC window units after the course was over. 2) I can have the pages rebound with a spiral binding that actually makes them easier to use and ready for resale on Ebay. Periodically I will scan a hardcover on the flat bed without cutting it apart, but only if the book isn’t available in soft cover and is something I really want on the iPad.

  2. Sob. I still can’t do it.

  3. Did you do this with all the books required for your Oxford trek, however long it was? My two years in the Tripos (Theology) program at Cambridge would have been pretty expensive no matter what editions I had bought. I spent most of my time at the library and I was always on the recall list for something or other.

  4. maphman says:

    I was there for a Summer residency at Wycliffe Hall during my undergrad so I was only taking nine hours. As I recall it was around forty texts that I couldn’t get otherwise. I still spent days and days at the Bod, but it was nice to have all my normal reading lists close to hand when most others had to chase them down.

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