Bringing Book Scanning Home

October 12, 2009 | 10 2 min read

If Dan Reetz didn’t exist, it would be necessary for Cory Doctorow to invent him.

I met Reetz at New York Law School’s D is for Digitize conference over the weekend — two days devoted to the Google Books settlement and its future. It was a room filled mostly with lawyers and professors, along with librarians, publishers, a contingent of students… and Dan Reetz.

I have to paint the picture. He comes into the conference room — big, beautiful and brand-new, almost antiseptic — in a dark coat, hefting a huge black duffel bag.

Out of the bag comes a flat, mechanical-looking form of no recognizable use. It’s mutant Ikea.

It’s a transformer.

In a flurry of twists and clicks, Reetz folds it out and snaps it together —

— and when it’s finally assembled, it looks something like this:

dan reetz & his diy book scanner

It’s pure 21st-century ingenuity. Reetz designed his first book scanner because, as a grad student at North Dakota State, he was appalled by textbook prices. Then he built it, in two days, from old digital cameras, cardboard, and scrap parts; a friend wrote the page-processing software.

Reetz’s latest model, the one pictured above, is built not from junk but from laser-cut plywood, and it folds down and fits into an overhead luggage bin. It’s perfect for book-scanning special ops.

As important as the scanner itself is the community around it. It’s small, but growing: engineers, developers, academics, and even the occasional intellectual property lawyer.

Now, line Dan Reetz up with the other Dan at the conference: Dan Clancy, who directs Google Books. To review: Google has scanned more than 10 million books, the many of them still copyrighted but long out-of-print, and therefore unavailable unless you can get to a big university library. The Google Books settlement provides one path to make those books available to everyone, online.

So at one end of the spectrum, we have Google’s ambition and scale: the vision of a complete digital library and the unique ability to actually pull it off. At the other end, we have Dan Reetz’s ingenuity and openness: the delight of a $200 book scanner and a PDF parts list ready for printing if you want to make your own.

Although there was plenty of teeth-gnashing in that conference room — and truly, there’s a lot not to like about the Google Books settlement — I think the Reetz-Clancy continuum augurs good things for the future of books. On one end, the recognition that books have to live online now, and that publishing has to operate at internet scale. On the other, the passion for (obsession with?) independence and the cottage-industry craftiness that’s been the best part of book publishing for so long already.

It was encouraging to have both ends in the same room — part of the same conversation.

is the author of two novels, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough. Penumbra was a New York Times bestseller translated into more than 20 languages and Sourdough just came out, so give it a minute. Robin lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he tinkers with technology. You can learn more at his website.


  1. You know, there were plenty of people who created homebrew gadgets to cut those large plastic packages off of CDs in stores, or to make a Faraday cage in their pockets to foil detection systems, or to play tones into a pay telephone to get free calls. All of those people were ingenious, and all of them made neat gadgets.

    And they were also all thieves, using their ingenuity to steal things that didn’t belong to them. Google and this guy are just the latest manifestations of that impulse — they’re yet more people who will do anything to avoid having to actually pay for the things they want. (Reetz admits that he started this project because he was “appalled by textbook prices” — he wanted something, but preferred not to pay for it.)

    And what, exactly, is a “book-scanning special op?” Is that a clandestine mission deep into the heart of the “enemy” — a bookstore or library — to copy secretly something that he doesn’t have the right to?

    Is your next post going to be an adoring look at the ingenious ways one can abstract valuable books out of rare book rooms and antiquarian booksellers? And if not, why is that kind of book theft not the one you choose to glamorize?

  2. On the DIY Book Scanner forum, you’ll find people using the scanner for everything from digitizing a personal science fiction book collection, thousands of volumes deep, to recording and preserving one-of-a-kind books in Indonesian villages.

    The world of books, and the world of uses for books, goes a lot deeper than getting the latest Dan Brown at Barnes and Noble (or snagging it for free online instead).

    So yes, there are plenty of straight-up book pirates. But a machine like this makes a lot of other things possible, too. Keep in mind, there are plenty of libraries and museums trying to digitize things these days — one-of-a-kind works, local works, orphan works. Can a sub-$200 book scanner help out with that? I’ll bet it can.

  3. I like how this is basically a manifestation of the object you described in Mr. Penumbra. But I do think Andrew Wheeler has a point. Textbooks are not all published by evil companies out to destroy students. I can think of a number of expensive physics books for instance that would have lost tons of money if they were only sold and resold (without the hated edition changes) and at least one which helped support a young widow and her family. More than a few badly paid professors have been able to send their own children to college only because of the royalties of repeat printing books. When you read the biographies of people like Orwell and his orphaned kid, you remember that repeated printings and loyalties are often what keep the children of starving writers from also starving. I invoke these sad, sad stories knowing full well they do not represent the mass of textbook copyright lineages—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

  4. Being “appalled by textbook prices” is much like being “appalled by high gas prices.” Don’t you want to drive oil suppliers out of business for good? I know Dan does not advocate scanning of copyrighted books.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.