Who needs Google? DIY book scanning-Blown To Bits

October 18, 2009

Do It Yourself Book Scanning

Harry Lewis

Blown To Bits: October 10th, 2009


I am just back from D is for Digitize, James Grimmelmann’s conference on the Google Books Settlement at the New York Law School, where he teaches. It was an excellent meeting, about which I will report more in a followup post. But there was one clear star in the day-and-a-half of panels, each with four or five speakers. The prize goes to Daniel Reetz of DIYBookScanner.org — that is, Do It Yourself Book Scanner. Reetz, a book freak and mechanical genius, figured out how to make a book scanner out of stuff you can find in dumpsters, or buy cheaply, including off-the-shelf, cheap digital camers. He has put the instructions online so we can all build our own. It’s amazing to see — Reetz demonstrated it, and then in just a few minutes folded it up and put it into a bag small enough to take on an airplane. It works fast — and it’s really well designed. The slowest part is turning the pages, which you do by hand.

This is the equivalent for books of the tape recorder for music and the VCR for movies. We can all digitize our own books and throw them away now.

Or make them publicly available. I said “can,” not “may” or “should.” But the existence of the device has the potential to raise lots of the same kinds of questions those other duplicating technologies raised.

It empowers individuals, and enough empowered individuals could produce a Wikipedian digital library, collectively assembled, imperfect and incomplete, but growing and expanding.

While everyone else at the conference was ruminating about whether Google had a library monopoly or whether Amazon or Microsoft might imaginably be able to compete, along comes this dude with his Rube Goldberg contraption and says, hey, let’s all just start doing it, and we’ll catch up eventually.

Astonishing idea. At the conference, it took about thirty seconds for an author to ask Daniel why he should ever write another book, since the first person who bought it could instantly make it available to the entire world. Of course, Daniel replied something like what he has on the Web:

I love books. There is some truly fantastic knowledge and information hidden out there in hard to find, rare, and not commercially viable books. I find that I want my books with me everywhere. But that’s where the problems begin. Buying, moving, storing, and preserving books means environmental costs… and when I loan a book to a friend, I no longer have access to it.

Digital books change the landscape . After suffering through scanning many of my old, rare, and government issue books, I decided to create a book scanner that anybody could make, for around $300.

And that’s what this instructable is all about. A greener future with more books rather than fewer books. More access to information, rather than less access to information. And maybe, years from now, a reformed publishing/distribution model (but I’m not holding my breath…).

Check it out. And if Daniel comes to a show near you, go see him. He’s cool in the way many a game-changing techologist has been cool.

Added October 11: I’ve received two interesting pointers since posting the above. First, an account of how Google’s scanner works; and second, a pointer to Snapster, commercial software for using your digital camera as a cocument scanner. The point is that there are a lot of things that are possible in this space, in mechanical design, image analysis, and coding, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Reetz can build a open community around his scanner, contributing both engineering and content.


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