Briefly Noted: How Does Google Book Scanning Work?

In case you’ve ever wondered how Google Book scanning works, here’s a cool article from NPR (“The Secret Of Google’s Book Scanning Machine Revealed”).

Pre-Google Books, scanning books was not such easy business, and sometimes — gasp — even resulted in killing the book to be scanned (i.e., removing the spine of said book to deal with just the pages):

“Before Google came on the scene, book scanning was a tedious process that sometimes resulted in the death of a book. The software used to scan books, called Optical Character Recognition software or OCR for short, required each page of the book to be flat. Now anyone who’s ever opened a book knows it’s next to impossible for a book to lie flat without some sort of device. One solution to the problem was to use glass plates that individually flattened each page, but this method wasn’t very efficient. The other solution was to chop off the book’s binding, but that method destroyed the book. How was one to go about scanning a book quickly and efficiently without destroying it? It was a problem that vexed book scanners for years until Google came up with this solution.”

As Cory Doctorow explains simply enough: “One of the hard problems of bulk book-scanning is the distortion in the scanned images arising from the bowed center of the book as it lies open. Google’s clever solution to this is to paint the book with infrared light, and then use two infrared cameras to generate a 3D model of the book, which can be used to correct the scans.”

Pretty neat.

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Check out The Art of Google Books Tumblr for some of the “found art” that is introduced in the process of book scanning.

And, here’s everything else you probably ever wanted to know about book scanning.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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