I don’t believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming. I do believe, however, that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising — for whatever reason — and that since this allows more plants to grow, and more animals to eat them, and more people to eat the plants and animals, it is, on the whole, a Good Thing. But when you live, as I do, in an area that is prone to bushfires, having more plants around — dry, burnable Australian plants, itching to get involved in a really big conflagration so they can spread their seeds — is not necessarily a good idea. Fire is like sex for Australian plants: imagine fifty thousand hectares of trees that haven’t had it away for a decade, and you can see why it’s so explosive when it finally gets going.
We’ve been here for over twenty years now, and there is much more vegetation nearby than there ever was. So although, for all I know, this house may remain untouched by fire until they wheel us off to a retirement home, we still have a contingency plan in the case of a serious bushfire — grab our precious possessions and run like hell.
Unfortunately that’s a little hard to do when your precious possessions include a collection of nearly 300 classic Golden Age mystery stories collected over more than thirty years, mostly paperbacks, which would occupy at least three large suitcases and comfortably fill the boot of a car. So for a couple of years now I have been looking for the opportunity to convert these to an electronic format which I can store on a memory stick and stuff into my pocket when the flames start licking around the vegetable garden.
Now, let’s be clear about this — I am a story collector, not a book collector. I purchase books to read, and I keep them in order to read them again. I don’t particularly care about their condition, the cover image, the publisher or whether they are hardback, paperback or in electronic form, as long as I can read them unimpeded. There are a few items in my collection which are nice books in their own right, and I would be sorry to lose them. But on the whole I have no qualms about chopping up tatty old books and feeding them through a scanner in order to produce a product which is more portable, more back-up-able, and equally usable as long as the world’s computers don’t all blow up at once. So if you think that destroying a book for any reason whatsoever is a wicked act punishable by death, you had better stop here. But if you have a vague feeling that sometimes it might actually be a good idea, then read on.
Of course, if you are under twenty-five, you are probably asking “Why not just buy eBooks instead?” (If you are under fifteen, you are probably asking “What are books?”, but I don’t have time to explain that now. Go ask your parents.) What you young whippersnappers don’t realise is that books actually go back quite a long way. I have a few books that were published more than a hundred years ago, and some that are over seventy years old. Most are between twenty and sixty years old. I can’t purchase electronic copies of them legally, although most of the authors are long dead, because of the incredibly restrictive and stupid copyright laws now enforced across most of the planet. And I can’t download illegal pirated copies for most of them because there aren’t any. They’re just not popular enough, or widely available enough, for anyone to bother pirating. So I have no choice but to make my own copies.
I actually started about ten years ago, with a small portable flatbed scanner attached to a Windows PC. I would open the book at the first page, open the scanner, press the book down on the scanner, grab the mouse, click the ‘Scan’ button, wait twenty seconds for the scanner to scan, open the lid, lift the book, turn the page, replace the book, press it down on the scanner, grab the mouse, etc, etc. Sometimes I wouldn’t shut the lid fast enough, and I would get a blast of light that would make the world look all swimmy and green. After a while I wrote some scripts to do the mouse clicking for me at a fixed interval, which made it a little faster, but meant that I occasionally missed pages that were stuck together, and had to go back and do them again later, which took more time than I had saved. With practice I could scan a 200-page book in about an hour. It may sound like a deadly dull way to spend an afternoon, but do you know what? It is. Which is why my collection of unscanned books continued to grow rather than shrink.
And then I discovered the Four Magic Technologies of Book Scanning.