Why Use An Overhead Scanner For Old Books? (Explained)

If you have old books that you want to scan, then your best home choice is an overhead scanner.

Overhead scanners put less wear and tear on your precious books than other types of flatbed scanners. This is known as non-destructive scanning.

Handheld scanners (or your phone) can also be non-destructive and produce high-quality scans.

But can you really face holding your scanner and flipping carefully through six hundred pages? If not, read this article for an introduction to overhead scanners.

What Types Of Scanners Can Be Used With Old Books?

Before we look in detail at overhead scanners, you should be aware of all your options for scanning old books at home.

These are the broad types of scanner:

  • Your cell phone
  • Handheld scanners
  • Specialist flatbed scanners
  • Overhead scanners

Phones and other handheld scanners

But nobody wants to scan a 700-page tome this way. It would be far too slow and laborious.

The same can be said for specialist handheld scanners.

Again, they are great for taking to a library (with permission from the librarian for use). But it would be very difficult to work through a large book.

Flatbed scanners

I don’t recommend using a standard flatbed scanner with old books due to the risk of damage. The exception is if you don’t mind removing the spine and cover from the book.

Our article on scanning books with flatbed scanners goes into detail about your options.

It also covers specialist flatbed scanners that are designed for use with books. I’ll summarize the advantages from the article as these:

  • The edge of the bed is flattened to ensure that the spine only has to open 90 degrees, thus minimizing damage.
  • Built-in software compensates for the inevitable curve and shadow of the image.

However, there is still one big drawback when using these flatbeds on delicate pages:

The machine makes contact with each page.

This puts wear and stress on the pages. The alternative is to ensure that the scan is taken without contact. This is the advantage of the overhead scanner

What Is An Overhead Scanner?

When you use your phone to scan book pages, you and your device are acting together as an overhead scanner.

If you’ve never seen one, then a picture is worth a thousand words.

Here are some examples from the market. They are ordered by price, click on the images to check current costs (affiliate links).

As you can see, the physical housing for the scanning device is fixed above the bed with an overhead arm. This equipment doesn’t touch the book which is placed face-up on the bed.

This immediately ensures that this type of scanner is less likely to damage your old book.

Bed or cradle

Many overhead scanners are also flatbed scanners. The book lies (nearly) flat on the bed of the machine.

So, you should also think about wear and tear on the spine of your book.

However, some overhead scanners come with a cradle. These will usually be more expensive.

However, it’s possible to improvise and make your own version of a cradle. I cover this in our article on scanning old books with your phone.

Overhead scanning software designed for books and magazines

I mentioned in the section on specialist flatbed scanners that they come equipped with image software that compensates with curves and shadows from a bound book.

Overhead scanners also come with in-built imaging software that has been designed to deal with books. This typically corrects for the curvature from the spine.

Flattening algorithms attempt to ensure that the scanned pages have the same quality as if they’d been pressed flat.

Oops! Do thirty scans have your finger at the bottom right of the image? Some of these overhead scanners will correct for that too!

Different manufacturers have their own software designs and features.

Foot pedal

A foot pedal is a nice optional feature that lets you take the image with a tap of your foot.

You’ll be surprised how much this increases the efficiency of the whole process. You carefully turn the page and tap your foot to start the scan.

This can be quite soothing and enjoyable when you get into your groove!

Automated page turning

This is the holy grail, right? The machine flips the pages for you while you do something that’s more fun.

Unfortunately, this option is priced for commercial use. Maybe the costs will come down in a few years but at the moment it’s out of reach for home use.

Getting Free Access To An Overhead Scanner

Some larger libraries have high-grade overhead scanners that they use for archiving old books and manuscripts.

The commercial-level scanners can look very different from the ones for home use. Here’s an example.

Yes, it’s got more of an industrial look about it. Librarians and archivists may need many hours of training to use them properly.

These ones are less likely to be available to the general public.

Public use in libraries

However, an increasing number of libraries are installing mid-level scanners for cardholders. If you are within travel distance of large libraries, it’s worth calling around to see what’s available.

The screens are designed for people who don’t need the dizzying options that an archivist wants. A librarian will give you an introductory walkthrough for the first few pages, and then leave you to get on with it.

Universities and colleges

If you are a full or part-time student, you should talk to a librarian at your institution.

They may only have flatbed scanners for student use. However, more campus libraries are installing overhead scanners that are accessible by the student population.

The one drawback is that there may be time limits on use during term time. For example, Georgetown University has a five-minute limit if there is someone else waiting behind you.

I suggest you have a chat with the librarians or archivists if you have a book that is of genealogical interest to your family.

Librarians like old books! They may advise you of a quiet time when you can get a full run through your book.

Making Your Own Overhead Scanner

There is an entire group of DIY enthusiasts who have documented and videoed the design and build of homemade overhead scanners.

They make ingenious use of cardboard boxes and cellphones to set up a high-quality home scanning system.

Check out their forum if you have the DIY mindset.

I must admit it’s not for me. But the contraptions built by others look awesome!

Margaret created a family tree on a genealogy website in 2012. She purchased her first DNA kit in 2017. She created this website to share insights and how-to guides on DNA, genealogy, and family research.

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