Scanning books, and the way forward

Times change, and, as always, we must change with them. 

I no longer recall certainly when I first took down from the shelves the two volumes of Payne Smith’s translation of the Commentary on Luke by Cyril of Alexandria.  Perhaps it was in 2005.  The volumes stood on the open shelves at Cambridge university library.  I had noticed them several times, while looking for out-of-copyright translations of the Fathers to scan for my website.  But I had always been put off by the size of the books.  Still more had I been deterred by the two column footnotes and the marginal notes, so characteristic of Victorian translations, so time-consuming for one scanning a text to correct, format and link to the text.

But times change. That day I took them down, and walked the long corridor to the photocopying room where, for seven pence per A4 sheet, I reduced them to a thick pile of photocopies over a period of a couple of hours.  I took them home, and placed them on a filing cabinet, where there is still a pile of material of a similar nature today.  That at least has not changed!

I see from the timestamp on the directory that it was on 1st February 2006, at 22:18 hrs, that I began to scan those copies. Using my HP6350C scanner with a 25-sheet feeder, I created 13 directories of around 60 pages each, and began to OCR the less-than-perfect images.  Slowly I laboured through most of the first volume; and then I  halted.

Because times had changed, while I was at work on this text.  When I started my site, access to the internet was by 56 kilobit/second dial up.  At that speed the only way for texts to appear online was by manual scanning to create files of texts in ASCII or HTML.  Now we all had broadband ADSL, at 2 megabits/second or more; and PDF’s of the page images were suddenly a possibility.  Google books had begun. had begun.  And, that day, I discovered that my labour was useless; the first volume of Payne Smith’s translation was available, complete, as a download in PDF form.

I halted for a long while. Like most people, I am averse to useless effort. However I did receive the occasional enquiry as to when I was going to finish. I also hate unfinished tasks.

A few weeks ago I decided to resume, in the interests of completeness. But I now made some changes. There seemed no point in worrying much about the footnotes and marginalia. These were all available online elsewhere, after all. I also decided to modernise the text slightly — to change the mock-Jacobean Thou’s and Thee’s into You’s. This reduced the value to scholars; but of course scholars could use the full text from elsewhere. It did mean that anyone reading the text didn’t have to mentally translate it into modern English before they could hear what Cyril had to say.

I have now almost completed this; only two more of those thirteen directories remain to do. But times have changed again. Yesterday I went to Cambridge, and found that the volumes had vanished, into the rare books room. I wonder if anyone will ever see them again. After all, we can access the page images from our homes; we can print a copy of them in book form at, if we wanted a printed version, for less than photocopying cost me.

All these things mean that the way forward for sites like my own is less than clear. I cannot hope to compete with Google Books, or Nor can I hope to compete with the bibliography of l’Annee Philologique, even if it is hidden behind subscription walls. Perhaps the answer is to shift to new work; to producing revised versions of old translations, and making new ones, either myself or soliciting them from others, perhaps for money. I do not know.

But times change, and we must change with them.


6 thoughts on “Scanning books, and the way forward

  1. What happened to the Biblical Studies Carnival? It seems to have disappeared, and the comments attached to it are listed as “Private”…

  2. I want to mention that some of the chief advantages of a genuine electronic text edition of a work, as opposed to a scanned-image edition alone.

    1) Computers can search and manipulate text. (And humans can use computers to make simple searches.)
    2) The text can be easily extracted, modified, and inserted into other works. (For example, a passage can be quoted and pasted into another document that someone is working on.)
    3) The file size is smaller. (Consider fitting thousands of volumes versus fitting dozens of volumes on a disc, or consider a popular text’s bandwidth use.)
    4) Text readers for the computer can make some sense of it. (Accessibility for people who are blind.)

    For me, the biggest consideration is the first. Even with the availability of Greek editions in electronic text form, I know that I have frequently relied on simple 1 word searches on a translated text in order to find passages and resolve issues for myself.

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