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.