Why should I ever buy another reference book? Give me a PDF!

Recently I needed to consult a translation of an ancient author.  I don’t own paper copies of very many translations, and I never knowingly buy books that I will not read and reread.  But unusually for me, I did own a copy of this volume in printed form.

However when I searched for it, it was nowhere to be found.  I had to make do with translating some French version of the original that I found online.

Where could it be?  After some searching, I discovered a faint memory of including it in a batch of academic books that I donated to someone, in order to free up some shelf-space.  I dispose of unwanted books all the time, as anyone with any sanity must; and in fairness this is only the second book whose loss I have subsequently regretted, so I shan’t change my habit.  All the same, it made me realise that I did need access to this particular volume.

Today I borrowed a library copy, and spent a couple of hours creating a PDF of the page images, with searchable text.  Abbyy Finereader 12 did its usual job of scanning the pages, and Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 created the PDF and made it searchable.

It’s expensive to borrow by interlibrary loan, mind you.  And I had to go into a library to collect them.  A recent foot injury made the walk from the car park, and then the wait in a queue for service, particularly uncomfortable.  Paper reference books are simply not what any of us need any more.

This sort of process – of conversion of books into PDF – must be repeated up and down the world. Students with no money, and academics with no shelf space, must convert the same reference volumes into PDFs again and again and again.  Surely there ought to be a mechanism whereby this could be avoided?  After all, nobody is at all likely to buy copies of this work personally, except by a fluke (as I did).


10 thoughts on “Why should I ever buy another reference book? Give me a PDF!

  1. Agreed. Hope your foot feels better soon.

    If you are still looking for a vacation, that St. Andrews conference on the divine sonship looks good. NT Wright will speak, among others. Probably a bit pricey to eat in that town, but if your foot is better Scotland might be fun.

  2. Thank you for the kind thought. It’s a real eye-opener, how much we depend on things we take for granted. Like feet! 🙂

    Is the conference this one? It looks rather theological – is it Christian? I’ll be working in June, though. 🙁 Can’t turn down money, as someone who’ll be on the market end of June.

  3. Books and references on PDF or other readable format tossed onto ones hard drive does have advantages when it comes to searching for that half remembered reference and also getting the benefit of turning up related texts at the same time.
    However, for some kinds of work nothing still compares to a book with tagged book marks and underlining. I find that a spatial memory of a reference (book located here, reference on left about 1/3 of the way in from the front) is often very quick and reliable way of information recovery. A PDF simply does not have that kind of “feel”. However, I suspect, young’ uns who grew up with digital info have a different king of memory palace than us old geezers. And having a row of books and papers laid out on the floor beats trying to peer at multiple windows on a small screen. I have not yet budgeted money and space to have a multiple monitor set up.
    The last thing about data on disk is it is esential to have a back up, either a another hard drive somewhere else, or a stack of disks in a cool dry dark place in case the primary disk drive goes blooey, which sooner or later they all do.

  4. Perhaps so. It probably depends on the kind of work that one is doing? I work professionally with twin monitors at work; but even two are not really enough sometimes, and they do take up space.

    You are certainly right about the importance of backups. I have two external drives which mirror the data on my PC. One lives in the boot of my car, so even if my house burns down, it should survive.

  5. I think it is an academic conference, based on the schedule linked through Paleojudaica. Not really a Fathers category included, but tons of Paul papers. And of course pseudepigrapha!

    But if you’re working, obviously not too useful.

    While I’m attempting vicarious vacation planning, in July the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies is doing two weeks of classes, room, half-board (breakfast and dinner, which seems weird), excursions, and beer at the monastery in Norcia, Italy. The subject is the Letter to the Hebrews, with lots of Fathers and Aquinas. Obviously it is super-Catholic in setting as well as academic! They are going to hold a Scholastic disputation at the end, but with all participants in teams, which would be nifty to see and play. They still had openings at the beginning of April and the site doesn’t seem to have closed registration, but they do want recommendation letters. (Always a fly in the ointment. But I think they want people with a fair amount of Latin.)

    But you could probably have a lot of fun just driving somewhere and having a spring picnic right outside your car, no walking required. We have gotten a lot of violets this year all over the lawns in my neighborhood, and despite the crazy weather from El Nino, most of the blossoming trees came out beautifully.

  6. Ha! It sounds attractive. But until I get free of work, I probably can’t plan anything. Thank you anyway for the suggestions.

  7. I think Fred makes a good point. With computer screens we are back in the age of the Romans, scrolling inefficiently rather than turning over pages (though of course the ability to search a computer file efficiently is a godsend). It is as though the great Christian technological breakthrough of the 1st millennium, the replacement of the scroll with the codex, never happened. I too work with two computer screens in my daily editing job and am used to doing most of my work online, but there are times when hard copies are better than computer files. For some reason, it is easier to spot a typo on a hard copy than on a screen. I also find that undirected browsing through physical books sometimes produces serendipitous connections. But I am no technophobe. The great thing, of course, is to be able to make best use of both computer files AND hard copies.

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