You’ve probably used your phone to scan a few pages of an old book.
When you don’t want to damage the binding, you’ve held the book in a way that protects the spine. And with your other hand, you’ve angled the phone to get the best image or scan. It can be quite a contortion act.
But what if you want to use your phone to scan a 600-page book into a searchable PDF? Can you do this without damaging your book, your back, and your sanity?
Read on, folks. It can be done!
Equipment You’ll Need – And Optional Extras
Personally, I don’t focus on getting perfect quality when scanning old books. As long as the scans are good enough to convert to searchable text, then that meets my goals.
If you are more interested in preserving the look of the old books, then you’ll need more knowledge of digital photography than I have!
Here’s the basic equipment (and some optional extras)
If you are going to scan a full book with the least wear and tear, then you’ll need a book cradle.
The cradle supports the book so it’s not fully opened. This protects the spine and binding.
It also saves you from carpal tunnel through holding the heavy hard-back in one hand.
Book cradles are surprisingly expensive to buy. But it’s pretty easy to rig up a cheap homemade version.
The example in this YouTube video uses a large padded envelope stuffed with bubble wrap.
This is almost optional because once you’ve got the book open on a cradle, you can stand over it and position the camera phone to take the picture or scan.
But then you’ve got to lean forward, turn the page, and get back into the best position. For six hundred page turns? No, thank you!
Phone mounts are inexpensive. Get a mount that you can easily adjust to take overhead photographs.
The neck must be able to bend and hold its position. This is typically known as a gooseneck.
Before you buy one mount, read on to decide if you actually need two!
Using one phone
I don’t think you can do without a cradle or a phone mount, but it’s up to you whether you use one or two camera phones.
If you’re using one camera, you will probably need to change the position of the phone mount when photographing even or odd pages.
The most efficient way with one phone is to position the holder and take a scan of every odd-numbered page.
Then, change the position of the holder and scan through every even-numbered page.
The disadvantage is that you’re going through the full book twice, and doubling the number of page flips. This doubles the wear you’re putting on the book.
Using an optional second camera (and two mounts)
If you have two phones and mounts, then you can position one for the odd-numbered pages and the other for the evens.
Then you are only turning each page once!
If you intend to scan several books or one very long tome, go with the dual-phone tactic!
Remote trigger for your camera phone (optional)
When you carefully turn the page, do you have to walk around the table to take (click) the scan on one or both phones? This largely depends on your lighting – which I’ll come to next.
If you have to stand in a different position to turn the page, then this will slow down the process and wear out the carpet.
You can get a remote trigger for your smartphone camera for under ten bucks. Here’s one as an example to buy (you may need two of these for your set-up).
Avoid using the flash on your phone. The lighting with an old book should not be harsh.
The goal is to get an even and diffuse light across the pages. As the book isn’t fully open, you will have to experiment with angles and positions to avoid shadow.
If you’re into phone photography, you may already have separate lights and stands. The ideal would be two diffuse light sources– one for the odd and one for the even pages.
Turning the pages
If you’re working with a simple phone set-up, then there’s no automation for this part.
The main advice here is to turn the pages slowly. A rapid page flip can tear or damage the pages of an old book.
Of course, this is the most tedious part of the process. It’s easy to start getting more careless when you’re an hour into the scan.
Take frequent breaks, and roll those shoulders if you’ve been bending repeatedly over the book.
Using A Scanning App On Your Phone
You may only want a series of beautiful images of the book you’re scanning. In that case, just use the camera on your phone.
In contrast, I usually want to end up with a searchable PDF version of the book. So, I use scanning and conversion software at a later point in the process.
However, you also have the option of scanning directly on your phone. I don’t do this myself. In the next section, I’ll describe how I copy the photos to my computer and convert them with desktop software.
But if you want to do all the work on your phone, there are plenty of good scanning apps out there.
They operate by taking control of your camera and adding extra processing to the images.
Regardless of which scanning app you use, the basics are the same.
When you point your phone at the book page, you will see a rectangle on the screen. This will frame the text that you’re scanning.
It’s important that you take a little time to position the target and test the outcome. You want to include the text at the margins.
If you want a recommendation, I use Office Lens from Microsoft. It’s available as a free download for both Android and iPhones.
When you open the app, it enables your phone camera.
The app opens by default in “Document” mode, which is exactly what you want for a book. (The alternatives are photo and whiteboard).
Using Image Conversion Software On Your PC
You don’t have to perform the scanning operations on your phone. Instead, you can take normal pictures as you move the book.
You can then copy the photos to your laptop or desktop computer, and use desktop software to convert them to PDF. This software could even be Office Lens, which can be installed on a computer.
This is my preferred method. It’s much easier to manage and touch up the images using the larger screen and power of a home computer.
Software like Office Lens will convert your images to PDF, Microsoft Word, and other formats.
Important! Test The Process
You don’t want to scan through six hundred pages and find that every even-numbered page is in shadow or out of focus.
If your end goal is a searchable PDF, you don’t want to find that words on the first five lines of every page can’t be found through a text search.
My best advice is to work through ten to twenty pages as a dry-run of your full process. Go through the post-scanning steps of converting to the final version of your document.
If all you want are legible and beautiful images, then check that you can read the words on the edges.
If you want a searchable document, convert the images to a searchable PDF and test a few searches.
Does This Sound Like Too Much Work?
If you intend to scan several old books in a non-destructive way, then you may not want such a manual process as I’ve described.
There are other options.
Using an overhead scanner
Holding a phone over a book is making a kind of overhead scanner. But you can buy proper scanning machines which keep the glass and lenses away from the pages.
You can read more in our article on scanning old books with overhead scanners.
Using a flatbed scanner
You probably have access to a flatbed scanner in a library or an office. Using a flatbed on books is a destructive method when you have to flatten the book.
But there are ways to minimize the damge. Check out our article on scanning a book with a flatbed scanner.
DIY book scanner project
If you’re the McGyver type, you can join a community of people who have built automated scanners out of their cameras, a cardboard box, and other household equipment.
Check out the dedicated forum for enthusiasts for this type of project.
I must admit that I’m not so enthusiastic about building a scanning rig!
Buying specialist book scanner
You may be surprised to learn that book scanners have become more affordable in recent years. I’ll be checking out the best options in a later article.