Scanning a book with a flatbed scanner is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to turn it into a PDF.
But you should understand that it can cause some damage. At the very least, it puts wear and stress on the spine and binding.
The most damage comes if you have to remove the spine to do the scan. This is not what you want with a family heirloom or a rare old book!
Read on to learn about your options.
Destructive Versus Non-Destructive Scanning Methods
There are two types of scanning methods: destructive and non-destructive.
We have an article on using overhead scanners to scan old books as a non-destructive method.
You can also use your phone to scan an old book in a non-destructive way that does not harm the binding.
In contrast, using a flatbed scanner on a book is a destructive method. This is because a typical flatbed is designed to scan flat documents.
Problems with books on a flatbed
The problem with an open book is that the pages curve near the binding. This curve causes shadows. The angle also distorts the text near the binding when taking an image.
You may find it difficult to read the distorted text. And if you want to make a searchable document, the OCR may not be able to convert distorted text into words.
Using the least destructive flatbed scanners
You can get specialist flatbed scanners that have additional designs to work with intact books i.e. with their spines and covers in place.
There will still be some wear and stress on an old book, but this shouldn’t be more than when you’re simply holding the book open to read it.
I’ll go into these in more detail in the next section.
Destructive scanning with a typical flatbed
Have you got an old book where the spine is almost completely detached already?
Or maybe you’ve got a mass-produced book, textbook, or manual that you don’t mind taking apart. It’s not rare or valuable, and you want the convenience of an electronic version.
Jump to the section on removing the spine and cover, where we go into your options in detail.
Using A Specialist Flatbed Book Scanner Without Removing The Spine
If the thought of removing the spine of a book makes you shudder, then you could check out the option of using a specialist flatbed scanner for books.
Take a look at this one:
You may be thinking that the image quality at the edges will be poor due to shadow and distortion.
But these specialist scanners have both physical and software features to address exactly that.
On the physical side, the machines have a thinner edge than the typical flatbeds. This makes it easier to get a flat page when you drape the opposite pages over the side.
On the software side, the machines come with image processing that is designed to reduce shadow and distortion at the edge.
In our opinion, PlusTek offers the best choices on the market.
Using A Typical Flatbed Scanner When Quality Is Less Important
I’ve used an office flatbed scanner to get copies of a software manual. In this case, I didn’t care if the text at the edges was distorted as long as it was legible.
It was a tedious process of lifting the lid, turning the page, and pressing the lid back down again to get the pages reasonably flat.
When I was halfway through, the spine was starting to crack and tear. And I wished I’d gone the whole hog and removed the spine in the first place!
This would have allowed me to use the automated document feeder.
Modern manuals and textbooks are prime examples of books where destructive scanning is your best choice. So, let’s look at how to go about removing the spine and bookbinding.
Removing The Spine And Binding From A Modern Book
There are two advantages to removing the spine, the cover, and the binding from a book you want to scan.
Firstly, the individual pages are now flat. This is what flatbed scanners were designed for! You eliminate the shadows and distortion from the curve of the spine.
Secondly, you now have a thick sheaf of loose pages. You can take advantage of a flatbed with an automatic document feeder!
As long as you get your preparation right, you can simply place a pile of pages into the inbound tray and go for a coffee. A feeder pulls the pages one by one and scans them without your intervention.
Let’s look at your choices for getting the spine removed from a manual or textbook.
Paying a small fee at a local printer or office supply store
The best way to remove the binding is to pay a small fee to a company that has a cutting machine. These machines cut straight and with precision.
You get uniform pages with a straight edge and the same dimensions. Perfect for automatic document feeders!
These machines are known as guillotines. No, not this creepy French contraption.
I’m talking about the type of guillotine used by your local printer.
Don’t think that they’re not used to similar requests, particularly if there is a college in your town. You’re probably best off avoiding a visit before the start of the new academic year!
Staples, a chain of office suppliers, charge under five bucks for this. However, some shops may be reluctant as it puts wear and tear on their machine. I’ve heard people have success by returning to talk to a different employee!
If you’re a regular customer for getting photos printed, the shop may not even charge you for a single book.
Do it yourself
Even print shops with commercial guillotines may start the cutting process with a knife. If the book is particularly thick, they will use a special type of blade to split a book into smaller parts.
The tool of choice is an X-Acto knife, which is inexpensive. You can check out the prices on Amazon.
Open the book at the halfway point and cut from the inside through to the spine. Now you have two halves.
Keep repeating until you get parts that are thin enough to let you remove the pages easily. Hopefully, they’ll slip away when you gently pull them.
We’ll cover the problem of glue in the next section.
Don’t use saws or other tools
I’ve seen people suggesting the use of circular saws. Don’t, unless you want to lose a finger!
It will also ruin the pages. As the paper crumples, it grabs and jerks the blade. This is a really bad idea!
Removing The Spine And Binding From An Old Book
You may have an older book where the pages are already falling away from the spine. A bit of gentle pulling may detach the spine and cover easily.
The problem is often with the glue residue that is left behind, still keeping pages stuck together.
Using a blow dryer
Some people report success with using a blow dryer to heat the spine and loosen the glue.
I haven’t tried this technique myself. I’d be concerned that the melting glue would spread and damage the pages irrevocably.
Slicing the edge with a sharp blade
If the spine and cover come away easily, you will have the option of rebinding the book at a later date.
But if there is a thick residue of glue, you may want to slice out the pages with an X-Acto blade.
Be careful to assess whether you’ve left enough margin on the pages for easy rebinding. If you don’t want to rebind the book, then this doesn’t matter.
If you’re using this option, then it’s best to slice the book first into thinner parts with your blade.
Then you may be able to gently pull out the pages without further equipment.
Otherwise, you could use a smaller guillotine or stack paper cutter for home use. Here’s a typical stack cutter.
Check for staples
Watch out for older books that have staples as well as glue.
It’s especially important to remove these before using a guillotine or cutter. They can damage the blades, making this process a rather expensive failure.