How Does Book Scanning Work?

Book scanning has interested me for years. I mean, if I had the spare cash and an extra vacuum cleaner*, this is how I might spend my weekends. The Guardian (“If you want to get ahead, get a scanner”) had a quick blurb that got me thinking:

“The most common machines of this kind are simple physical mechanisms: a book is held open in a cradle and pushed upwards against two angled glass plates. The movement triggers a pair of digital cameras, which simultaneously photograph the flattened pages, and the process is repeated, by hand, for each spread. As I pushed down on the lever and the shutters fired, it struck me that this was a kind of reverse press, of the most ancient Gutenberg kind. Instead of a block of ink-stained type being pressed on to a page, the book itself is pressed towards the light and its contents are released into the digital ether, to be republished, retransmitted once again.”

Intrigued, this led me to another article from earlier this year (“Saving Human Knowledge at 800 Pages an Hour”). If you’re interested in the book scanning process, it’s worth the click just to see the cool pictures of the books scanning machines involved. In the giant, seismic cultural shift from print to digital, it’s utterly fascinating to get a glimpse of some of the invisible work that forms the foundation of this transformation:

book scanning machines

“On the shelves, they’re checked for scanning suitability. Some really thick tomes won’t work, as the scanner can’t reach right into the “gutter” of the pages, leaving words chopped off — “because they didn’t think about digitizing in the 19th century,” says Booth. Many have a bandage of white ribbon holding their pages together so they don’t crumble apart. Booth tells me some even have uncut pages: After all this time, they’ve never been opened.

The point of the digitization project is to make sure these books do get read, or at least that they’re available to whoever might want to read them.”

google vacuum book scanner

The Internet Archive site has more information on the scanning efforts, library partners involved, and some interesting facts (600 million pages scanned, 1000 books scanned a day).

==============================================

*If you haven’t seen this article from a few years ago, Wired: “Google Turns Vacuum Cleaner Into Book Scanner

Archives

Surprise me

About

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

tyler shores cambridge

What I’m Reading Now:

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Related Articles

Have questions or ideas or requests for working together?

Get in touch