Why Scan Your Own Books?

While out giving talks and attending conferences, I often run into people who are baffled and befuddled by the concept of scanning their own books. The first and foremost reason is to preserve knowledge. Here’s what I told Dylan Love from Business Insider:

BI: Is it fair to say that ultimately the scanner is about preserving knowledge?

DR: Yes, and about people helping themselves. The most important thing to note here is, despite the ENORMOUS focus on digital books, their marketing, scanning, distribution, reading, and sale, there has been nearly ZERO focus on all the books people already own. Whole classes of books and book-related desires have been wholly ignored. That’s where I – and my designs and league of interesting people – come in. We help people get their books into a format they can use, using mostly stuff they already have. They might not always be archival-quality scans, but they are a whole lot better than being ignored.

People who don’t like the idea of the scanner tend to clump into a few different groups.

One kind of person (usually a legal person, but not an IP lawyer specifically) immediately jumps to the idea that I’m a crass pirate and just want everything for free, which ignores the fact that there are mountains of books that exist outside copyright and outside American law and outside the reach of of retailers like Amazon. These same people tend to think that sharing the plans to build a scanner constitutes copyright infringement, which is ludicrous and wrongheaded, but also a solid illustration of the reality-distorting power that copyright has over some people and professions. These people have a difficult time with the notion that book scanners have “substantial non-infringing uses” and that “fair use” is a good thing. They also have problems with the idea that the American notion of copyright doesn’t actually apply everywhere in the world. Here are a few non-infringing uses of the scanner, taken directly from this project:

Helping your community:

  • Suryandaru was one of the first people to contact me and build a copy of the scanner. He used his scanner to digitize molding, water-and-fire damaged Holy Books in Indonesia.
  • Doing your job on a shoestring budget:

  • Misty DeMeo brought DIY Book Scanner technology to a library setting, overcoming limited funding.
  • Indulging in your passions:

  • Rob scanned his thousands of science fiction paperbacks.
  • Solving your own problems:

  • Tristin is a mechanical engineering major who has trouble reading with his eyes so he built a scanner to have his computer read to him.
  • Making the world of copyright less mysterious:

  • Ben Varadi built a book scanning system to create the Durationator, a system that checks if it’s legal to copy a book in the United States.
  • Unearthing a curiousity:

  • Ann from Maritime Heritage Minnesota has digitized ships logs from the national archives of a land-locked state.
  • Preserving language:

  • Pat Hall is digitizing fileslips of Native American Languages. Fileslips are the linguistic recipe cards that eventually become dictionaries.
  • Serving up niche knowledge:

  • Danny Newman is creating a massive online library of mushrooms for mycologists everywhere.
  • Assisting the differently-abled and injured:

  • Paper Upgrade Project is using DIY Book Scanners to lighten the backpacks of students with disabilities.
  • Helping out in Haiti:

  • The Leave a Little Room foundation used DIY Book Scanners to create a digital medical records system for an earthquake troubled hospital in Leogane.
  • Helping yourself:

  • I scanned my own textbooks, which was fortunate, because the building I worked in collapsed and destroyed them (causing me to finally drop out).
  • Librarianship education.

  • This incredible teacher has a class assemble and operate a scanner to teach them about the issues of digital librarianship and to prepare them for the future.
  • Good business and big projects:

  • I can give you ten or twenty more examples, including the Internet Archive, Google.org, Wikimedia, the LDS church (and other religion-related projects), and many others.
  • Another kind of person (usually an author, or family of an author) immediately jumps to the idea that people scanning books at home are heartless skinflints who are ripping off authors and causing them to starve and die penniless. This is also an absurd position. It is widely documented that the vast majority of authors do not make much money from writing books, and that is because of their contracts with publishers, and the cash-advance business model of publishers. It is not because of people scanning their own book collections. In fact, most of the people on the DIY Book Scanner forums are scanning their books out of their enormous enthusiasm for books and authors – many people were scanning books that were unavailable any other way, because the authors are long dead and the publishers don’t think the books are valuable enough to reprint or scan. Ironically, some of my first book scanner sales were to family members of deceased authors, who wanted to make their books available again. If you want to find people who want authors to starve, you will have to look elsewhere.

    Another kind of person says that this kind of enterprise could never be “worth their time”. They simply don’t believe that assembling their own machine could possibly be worth it, or that spending some time to make their paper books into digital books could be worth the time and effort. After six years of nonstop work on the project, I find this a little offensive, but beyond any perceived slight, these people are probably right. They probably don’t have any books or interests that are “worth their time” to scan. Or much worth saving. After all, I’m not scanning Fifty Shades!!! But that doesn’t mean anything for the rest of us, who have tremendously important books and rare collections and socially important documents like zines or records of war crimes that some people might want destroyed — not to mention personal journals we’d like to preserve. It might not be for you, but that doesn’t make it stupid or a waste of time.

    Another kind of person (usually a somewhat technical person) feels that book scanning is a “solved problem” and will say things like “You could totally turn the pages with some hobby servos/vacuum/sugru/raspi” (Okay, what happens when two pages are stuck together?). They’ll say “You don’t need to use two cameras, I can do that with a webcam.” (have you ever looked through a webcam?). They’ll say “You can totally dewarp by simply looking at the text on the page.” (OK, what about non-Western text?) This hubris is a clear indicator that they’ve never, ever tried to scan a book or think books are a homogeneous mass (or occasionally, with the right person, this is all a sign of optimism – in which case, I strongly encourage them to get involved). This type of person generally tends to be overconfident and dismissive. For those of us who have scanned many, many books, the unique nature of each book, with their foldouts, foxing, missing pages and page numbers, bible-paper, glossy paper, glued-together pages, coffee-stains, uncooperative bindings, cutouts, inserts, fore-edge paintings, stains, water damage, dog-eared corners and broken bindings or one-shot access, well, we’ll need something a little more robust than your assumptions. That’s what these “complicated” machines seek to solve. Examples of the difficulty of the problem culled from the biggest, baddest, most intelligent scanning operation on Earth.

    Another kind of person feels that ebooks themselves are a “solved problem”. By this, they mean that they think can expect to buy or sell whatever eBook they want from some store somewhere, and that means that eBooks are as good as gold (already a bit silly — just try to get all your favorite books in digital format and you’ll see — then see if you can get them in formats like DAISY that work for people with low vision). Then try to get them outside the USA!. Well, we know better. First of all, just because something is available for purchase at a price you can afford from your privileged place in life does not mean that accessibility has been achieved, especially outside the USA. Most ebooks available for purchase simply do not enjoy the benefits of their medium. Huh? Well, a book you scan yourself is immutable – the text cannot be changed or have ads inserted by the distributing party. A book you scan yourself cannot be deleted without your permission, and you will still have access to it after the latest crappy e-library service fails and is turned off or “pivots” like the others before it. An eBook you scan yourself will not report back to the government, or to Amazon or Google what you are searching for, or when or how often or where you access it or where you take it. While that may not seem important to you now, it very well could be important to you in the future if your ideas, family, friends, sexual orientation, religion, or race become unpopular. Many of us have books too personal and too political to pay others to monitor how and when we read them, and who we share them with. Don’t believe me? Well, it’s already happened.

    I could go on and on about this, but actually, I wrote a long article about it. Enjoy.