I love books. I cannot overemphasize this. I really love books. A lot. I love to read them. I love to hold them in my hands. I love to be surrounded by shelves full of them. I even love binding books. Like most avid readers and book lovers, I’ve been known to acquire a few more books than is healthy. I don’t know exactly how many books I had when we began our downsizing efforts, but it was a lot. Since our plan was to move only with what would fit in our car, I knew that few, if any books would be making the journey with us.
As much as I love physical books, I’m not averse to reading books on a mobile device. However, I knew I couldn’t afford to replace all the hard copies I owned with digital copies. I was trying to spend LESS money, not break the bank. But I hated to give up the huge number of volumes I had collected over the years.
I Killed My Books!
From time to time, I wondered about the possibility of digitizing the collection myself, but I couldn’t think of any way to do it without either destroying the books or taking a million years to complete the process. I know this confession will horrify book lovers everywhere, but I eventually settled upon destroying the books, for a couple reasons. First, these were not rare volumes or first editions. Most of them were somewhat worn (or downright beat-up) copies of books that were printed in vast quantities. Many of them are a dime a dozen in second-hand bookstores. I kept all my autographed books intact, and either sold, donated, or kept anything that I felt was too valuable to destroy.
Second, I felt that if I didn’t want to keep the books after digitizing them, then destroying them would be the best course in terms of copyright. That way, my digital copy would replace the physical copy instead of creating a duplicate copy. If I were keeping the hard copies, I wouldn’t see that as an issue. It would be like ripping your CDs onto your computer so you can listen to them on your iPod. Following this philosophy also means I can’t ever give any of the pdf files to anyone else. It just wouldn’t feel right.
Once I decided I could live with destroying the books, it was fairly easy to devise a method for digitizing them. I had to spend a little money, but in my opinion it was well worth it to compress hundreds (give or take) of books into a few gigabytes. I invested in a paper stack cutter and a sheet-fed scanner. The scanner turned out to be especially well worth the investment, as I’ve used it to digitize nearly every sheet of paper we had, and thus further helped us reduce the clutter.
On the Chopping Block
The first step in the digitization process was to prepare the books for scanning. I removed the covers of the books – necessary for hardcovers, and preferable for paperbacks so that no information or images would be removed when we chopped off the spines. With hardcovers, I had to use an Exacto knife to remove the covers. Then I trimmed the dustjackets down so I would have a flat front cover and back cover to scan. On the paperbacks, I just tore off the covers and trimmed the edges as neatly as possible.
To chop the spines off the books, we selected the COME 2700EZ Heavy-Duty Stack Cutter, which we purchased on eBay for about $300 or so with shipping. It looks like there are now some less expensive options with good reviews available on Amazon now. When the blade is new, it is incredibly sharp and easily cuts through several hundred pages. Once it dulls, cutting through a few sheets of paper can require nearly every ounce of strength one possesses. It did come with an extra blade, which was a huge pain to change. It also weighed about a million pounds. Or maybe 36 pounds, which is still a lot. For larger books (probably at least 800 pages), we had to cut them into sections with an Exacto knife before we could trim off the spines. Cutting the books down into a loose stack of pages was definitely the worst part of the process. We often ended up with trapezoidal pages instead of rectangular ones. It was a good stack cutter, but we may have asked more of it than our price range really allowed. Once we finished the digitization project, we sold the stack cutter on Craig’s List for around $200. We were really pleased to get two-thirds of our original investment back.
Through a Scanner Lightly
For scanning the book pages, we bought the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M from Amazon for $420. There is an updated version of this scanner, the iX500, available on Amazon for about the same price. I have not used the new version of the scanner, but hopefully it is as reliable as the S1500M. With as much scanning as I had to do, I figured this little scanner probably couldn’t outlast the piles of paper I needed to run through it. I bought the ScanSnap because the reviews were so good, but was definitely skeptical. This is not some heavy-duty business scanner – it is lightweight and very portable. It was easy to set it up with my Adobe Acrobat software.
Since getting the scanner in November 2010, through today, I have run 210,527 sheets of paper through the ScanSnap, and it is still going strong. Every week or so, I clean the glass with a dry cloth and that is the extent of my regular maintenance. After a couple years, it started grabbing multiple pieces of paper at once, leaving me to feed pages through one at a time. After putting up with this for a while, I checked the consumable supply status and saw that the pick roller was rated for 100,000 sheets and the pad assembly was rated for 50,000 pages. I was at 180,000 pages. I spent $14 to replace the pad assembly (and a few bucks more to replace the pick roller, which is probably not as important to replace as the pad assembly). The ScanSnap iX500 does not use the same parts as the S1500M, so I am not sure if that scanner would develop similar problems.
When I took out the old pad assembly, I saw that the rubber pads had been worn paper-thin (and part of the pads had completely worn away, leaving the edges rounded instead of straight). When new, the pads are probably just under 1/8″ thick. When I put the new pad assembly in (literally a 10 second operation, if you don’t count the time taken to clean the area before you put the new one in), my scanner worked exactly like when it was brand new. Best $14 I ever spent. We briefly considered buying a new machine before we realized we could replace the pad assembly.
I’ve gotten so much more than my money’s worth out of the ScanSnap. If it ever does conk out, I will definitely buy another and I would recommend it without hesitation.
Is It Still a Book?
I chose to scan the covers separately in color, then scan the pages in black and white (for books that were all text), to eliminate any yellowing in my digital copy. Once I had scanned the covers and the body, I assembled them in Adobe Acrobat Pro. I chose to run OCR (optical character recognition) on my book scans as I scanned them so they would be searchable. This takes quite a bit longer, but for me it was worth it. If you don’t care if your books are searchable, it will take you much less time. You can always run OCR on any book later in Acrobat Pro.
I chose the “Best” setting for scanning books, which is 300 dpi for color or grayscale scans, and 600 dpi for black and white scans. There is also an “Excellent” setting, but the files were already quite large at “Best” and I felt the quality was sufficient. I didn’t even consider using the “Normal” or “Better” settings.
When scanning books with lots of color images, I would often get one or two long stripes in the scan on those pages, although not always. As much as I cleaned the glass, I could never fully eliminate this issue. My brother-in-law has the same scanner and we decided the problem was likely caused by the glue used to attach the glass to the scanner. I don’t know if the iX500 has the same problem. Since probably 80-90 percent of what I scan is black text, it isn’t a deal breaker for me. I’d be surprised to find another little sheet-fed scanner that is reliable and tough as this one.
In the Cloud, No One Can Hear You Scream
Despite saving a ton of space in our house, we still had to come up with the digital storage space for all these books. Luckily, Stephen is a photographer, so he was already obsessed with terabytes. The size of each file varied widely depending on the number of pages and whether the scan was black and white or color. But to give you an idea, one particular 400-page novel I have is 70MB. So if you decide to start a project like this, keep in mind that you will start filling up hard drives quite rapidly. This is especially true if, like us, you like to backup your backups.
Whenever I completed a new scan, I would copy the PDF file into iTunes. Then I could go in and add the genre, author name, year of publication, and other relevant information. I also updated the meta data for any books I downloaded in iTunes. This worked great until Apple decided to completely ruin iBooks when they separated it from iTunes when they put out Mavericks. To begin with, in the transfer, not all of my books made it from iTunes to iBooks. This was especially true of PDF files. Even worse, all the meta data I had meticulously entered on thousands of PDF files and iTunes downloads was gone. Completely gone. Additionally, there was no longer any way to edit meta data in iBooks. You can still do it in iTunes for songs and videos, but if you want to edit the meta data for a book, forget about it.
This is the one time since I switched to Mac many years ago that I have been furious with Apple. Arbitrarily dumping people’s work and not even allowing them to re-enter the information was a huge blunder. What I could have done was edit some of the PDF file information in Acrobat to at least allow the PDF files to sort correctly by author in iBooks. Or I could have found a different app to organize and read my PDF files. What I ended up doing was nothing. I was so sad that all of my data was unceremoniously thrown in the toilet that I decided not to deal with it. I just couldn’t face re-entering all the information, either in another app or in iBooks, if they were to allow such a subversive thing. I had entered the new meta data for 2-3 books at a time, over a period of about four years. I can’t imagine trying to do it for all the books over again. It would take me forever and wouldn’t be worth it.
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