Building a Better Scanner: Library IT and Student Engagement

U-M Library staff working with ME 450 students on the linear book scanner.

U-M Library staff working with Mechanical Engineering students on a linear book scanner prototype.

Here at the U-M Library, we’re committed to identifying opportunities for engagement between Library staff and students. But identifying these opportunities can be difficult for our Library’s IT unit since we’re not involved with students as part of our day-to-day work. How do we as tech professionals engage with the student community?

For the past two years, a team of U-M Library librarians have collaborated with Mechanical Engineering students to build linear book scanners. These scanners are based on an original Google design, and lucky for us, Google made the plans and patent of their linear book scanner openly available. Our students have been improving on these designs for the past four semesters as part of a course and an independent study.

The idea behind the scanners is to automatically scan books face down, without removing the spines and without damaging the book. (You can see a video of a prototype in action here). In addition, book scanning can be expensive, with entry-level robotic scanners costing more than $100,000. This price point for book scanners makes it difficult for smaller libraries and other cultural organizations (museums, historical societies, private archives, etc.) to embark on digitization projects and thereby increase access to what is often one-of-a-kind material.  With a projected cost of $1500 for each linear book scanner, scanning becomes affordable and scalable since it is envisioned that one person can manage multiple scanners simultaneously.

Our initial collaborations on the book scanner project were part of a Mechanical Engineering course. We were assigned a student team and met with them 4-5 times during the semester to discuss design requirements and modifications. At the beginning of each semester, we also provided the students with a tour of our Library’s digital conversion unit to provide them with more background on book digitization and the problem we’re trying to solve.

Our hope is that through work on the book scanner project, students will learn more about libraries, mass digitization, open source projects, and issues affecting the preservation of cultural heritage materials. We’re encouraged by recent feedback from one student:

“Libraries are not just a place for people to read books. Libraries do way more things than I could have think [sic] of and have very important roles in the society.”

To learn more about the various linear book scanner projects, please see the project site.  For more information about our collaboration, please see this article on the U-M Library’s website.

How are other Library IT units engaging with students? We would love to hear about your work!