Scanning Books about Making Handmade Books

Image: Ryan TramanI spent most of the day scanning books into long PDFs yesterday. The books focused on two different subjects: the craft of physically constructing books (i.e. folding, gluing, sewing), and the future of books as they become increasingly digital. I’ve written about the latter at length already, and I’ll continue to address that topic in future posts. For this post, though, I want to think about a couple of aspects of scanning in books about handmaking books. At first, of course, its sort of tongue-in-cheek funny, or maybe even a little hipster-self-aware. Neither of which I was going for. I’ve thought a lot about scanning in books, why I do it, why I don’t feel great about it, and what I can learn about myself from this impulse.

First, there’s the cost. If I can afford to purchase a book (read: usually less than $20) I’ll almost always purchase the book in print form. I’m still not ready to buy ebooks as long as they’re weighted down with DRM, proprietary reading software, and no markup capabilities. So the print versions. When I can afford it. But lots of the books in which I’m interested are out of print or are incredibly expensive, given the nature of certain academic book-publication conventions (some of which are getting better. You go, CCDP, USUP, and Parlor Press, among others!). And I’ve never really batted an eye at photocopying a journal article or book chapter. This is a bit different, given the wider scope, but I’ve accepted it.

Second, there’s the practicality of it. It’s not just about ownership or possession. Sure it’s nice to take a book from the library or inter-library loan scan it, and have a copy of my own. But more importantly, I’m almost always going to need that volume for longer than the loan period (especially with ILL books). This allows more people to have access to the book, as the physical copy is in my possession for a much shorter period of time.

Third, you can’t underline, write in the margins, or cut-and-paste from a print book (yes, I’m looking at you Mr. it’s-okay-to-underline-and-write-in-the-margins-because-it’s-in-pencil student!). All of this is possible with a variety of inexpensive PDF programs.

So yeah, I bought a $100 scanner which has paid for itself in strict financial terms, as well as convenience and performance, many many times over.

Do I really need to cover the ethics of this? Am I really costing these publishers any money by doing this? Maybe sometimes, but I can imaging that I would ever pay $75 dollars for a book that might be reference a few times in my dissertation or an article. As a graduate student, living on a graduate student’s salary, that’s not a reasonable model. Maybe for a professor, the model would look differently. This is usually the make-or-break question for me: can I afford to buy the book and is it worth it to me? If yes, then I always purchase it (as often as possible through the publisher, if I want to support their politics). If not, that’s when I get my scanner warmed up.

(image appears courtesy of Ryan Trauman. see blog creative commons license for permissions)

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