Magic technology for scanning number one is the digital camera. Within the last ten years ordinary handheld cameras have been able to produce clear, perfectly readable images of printed text. Within the last five years they have become financially available to everyone. It’s a rare household which doesn’t have a digital camera capable of 8 megapixel images or better — the minimum resolution you need for a readable page.
Some dedicated do-it-yourselfers have built elaborate systems for automatically turning pages and triggering cameras. Since my construction skills begin and end with Lego pyramids, I didn’t try to emulate them. What I did do, however, shortly after buying a reasonably powerful digital camera, was to make a frame with a perspex top and a base with a styrofoam slot in which the camera could be mounted. The idea was to turn a page of the book, press it down on the perspex, and trigger the camera — thereby getting a page image in about five seconds instead of twenty. It was a Heath Robinson contraption, but it worked reasonably well when I managed to get the camera settings right. The biggest problem was coming up with a source of light that was bright enough to illuminate the page, diffuse enough to light it all equally, and dim enough not to blind me every time I lifted up the book. Our eyes automatically adjust to differing levels of illumination across the page: cameras don’t. I had to throw away a lot of scans that just didn’t make it. So that idea eventually went into the scrap.
Idea number two with the digital camera was to mount it on a tripod outside a window, mark out a space on the inside of the window with masking tape, press the book against the window, and trigger the camera with an infra-red remote control device. This works surprisingly well if you do it on a sunny day, but it’s basically a washout when it’s raining or at night. You can’t use the camera flash because it reflects off the glass. If and when I want to scan my more precious books, and still keep the volumes intact, this is the method I will probably go back to. But for now there are better alternatives.
Magic technology for scanning number two is the page feed scanner. These used to be high-priced devices reserved for big corporations and government offices, where you are only allowed to delete a document if you have previously made copies in triplicate. What makes them affordable now is that they now often form part of a multipurpose inkjet printer. Buy a sheetfeed scanner by itself and it will probably cost you over $400. But you can buy an inkjet printer which includes a sheetfeed scanner for $200 or less. Go figure.
We are now on our third inkjet-printer-pagefeed-scanner. The first was an excellent scanner; but it stopped scanning when the ink ran out and it wouldn’t accept replacement cartridges. Why not having any ink should have stopped it from scanning, I can’t say. My experience of printers is that they all work on the Flintstones plan, with a bad-tempered prehistoric bird inside tapping ink on to the paper when it feels like it. Maybe the cartridges had the wrong kind of birdseed in, and the bird died. Who knows? Anyway, the scanner worked well, and I bought another similar printer from another company expecting it would do the same.
Big mistake. Because of the position of the rollers and the platen, this particular model could only scan A4 pages. It was completely useless for scanning paperbacks or any other size page. The little pages just got sucked up into its innards, where the bird would peck holes in them.You’d think a little drawback like this would make it into some of the reviews, wouldn’t you, or maybe get a mention on the side of the box? You would be wrong: nobody even thought to mention that this device was totally unfit for its advertised purpose. But it was expensive, and we were stuck with it now, so the scanning project went on hold for a couple of years.
Then I saw a multipurpose printer on special for $80 at an electrical store. Should I risk it? Would it scan paperback pages? I opened up the demonstration model… the rollers looked as though they were in the right places. If I had had a paperback with me, I would have torn out a page and asked for a test: but I didn’t, so I took a chance. I brought it home and set it up in the study. It worked! So just to keep the bird happy and alive, I have designated this a no-printing printer. If it never uses any ink, then it can’t run out and ask for a new cartridge.
Incidentally, the bird in the other inkjet printer died shortly afterwards, so we replaced it with a colour laser printer — no more faffing around with inkjet cartridges, hoo – bloody -ray!
For the record, then, this sheetfeed scanner is a Canon Pixma MX340 with WiFi. It will scan to a memory stick, but I have it running off a little Acer EEE using the MX Navigator program that comes with the printer. It’s a Windows program, alas, but it does collate alternate pages — first I scan the odd pages, then the evens — and saves straight to PDF format. It even does OCR, but not very well. Which brings me to…