Better imaging at the BL

Times they have changed in the field of digital reproduction. I remember when I first started going to the British Library at St Pancras, the photocopy equipment was some fairly modern but beastly black-and-white machines whose quality was legible but no more. There were fears that better quality would encourage copyright theft, indeed. Now, they have high-quality colour copiers, and today I went in to try and get some scans made for the Leeds paper, and find they have a public-use scanner. I tell you, this is not the same institution. Heritage Lottery funding made them change an awful lot of this keep-the-learning-old-style-and-exclusive attitude they seemed once to have. I don’t particularly enjoy the gauntlet of headphone-plugged laptop-gazing latte-sippin’ dogs users in comfy chairs between the cloakrooms and the reading rooms, or the habitual (but almost always wrong) signs saying that the rooms are full, but I do like to see the greater welcome to the actual public and think the slight inconveniences are worth paying for that.

This scanner is a peculiar beast, though, and really a camera, I’m fairly sure. There is a platform on which the book is laid, whose two halves can be raised or lowered to meet comfortably the position in which the particular point of opening has left the book’s spine. Then, with the pages held open with the book-snakes provided, you press some guides sunk into the platform, and the machine takes a picture with a lens positioned above the platform. It gives you a preview, what makes it clear that it auto-detects the book and zooms in to remove the platform around the edge, and then if you press `save’ dumps its final version to whatever USB stick you have plugged in. (There are two ports. What happens if you have something in both?) At the moment, this all takes a bit of figuring as the step-by-step instructions only cover part of the process, and figuring that you have to log in (rather than present a key-card as the display actually requests) and plug in a stick is not trivial, but since they use your existing reader’s account as a print credit one, it’s reasonably painless once you have the idea. (Better instructions will make this a much better system than the one now in use at Cambridge UL where you actually have to have two accounts, one for the UL itself and one for its computer systems, to photocopy. It used to be that the entry card was also a photocopy card and for my money that’s the way it should have stayed. Anyway.)

The other thing that really isn’t clear is what you will actually find on your USB stick when you get it out (which is something you have to decide about yourself; no `safe to remove’ dialogue). So, I have now checked this and find that I have three full-page spreads tinted noticeably but not horribly sepia (perhaps just because of ambient light leaking in, in fact) and watermarked with the British Library’s name. This makes sense, but it’s ghosted grey for legibility over the scanned text, so it completely disappears in any kind of image, which is good for some reasons (mine) and bad for others (theirs, as copying a stand-alone image stands outside of their terms of fair use). And these spreads are at 270 dpi and JPEG format, which is a further indication that a camera not a scanner is involved, as that’s no sensible number and a scanner really ought to default to a lossless format. My guess is that the whole platform is positioned to give 6400 by 4800 pixels or similar, and then cropped in software to the `interest zone’ that’s actually got book in it. So a tiny book will give you a tiny image, though with that many pixels to crop from it’s a long way from being unusable. Anyway, with some decent instructions this would be a brilliant facility and I’m already very happy with it. It can’t have been cheap, but at 30 pence a scan and eight or fourteen pounds for USB sticks that retail elsewhere at five or ten, they’ll claw it back slowly. So I thought this was worth mentioning, since some regular readers are on their way to use the BL soon, and just generally as an example of good practice.

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5 responses to “Better imaging at the BL

  1. Dude, you were there and didn’t say hi?

    • Hey, you’re already over? I hadn’t realised. I’m sorry, but, well, I ought to have noticed you if you were there, I was in the right part of the room. This was, er, Tuesday 30th…

  2. I was there!

  3. This is true! And how I could miss you is as much of a mystery!

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