How to generate pdfs of books or case reports while in the library

by scotslawstudent

I’ve been looking at programs which may help me in my studies. One of the most promising I’ve found is one which is intended to allow people to create multi page pdf copies of any documents, books, whiteboards or cards they can photograph. The whiteboard mode is surprising and I’m not certain it fits into my current teaching style, however, there is nothing quite like being able to see exactly what the teacher has written on a whiteboard long after the lesson has finished.

It’s called Snapter and I’m pleasantly surprised with how effective it is. I tested it out with my camera phone and a copy of 100 Cases Every Scots Law Student Should Know and and as long as you remember to abide by the rules the program gives you: take the photos from straight above with the spine vertical in the image then you can reliably create a very readable pdf from the images. It’s not a quick process, and it’s almost certainly the most processor intensive application you will ever use for your legal studies but the results are very surprising and usable. I’ve done an example here with Scott Adam’s “Way of the Weasel” which I chose because it includes text boxes and images alongside text – so it’s actually more complicated to scan than most law textbooks.

Snapter has a deceptively simple design of interface for what is a powerful program with many features and controls hidden in the boxes, for the best results you should set the controls each time you use Snapter but the defaults manage well on their own. I found the most useful option was the “original size

Basic photographic principles apply If you used a higher resolution camera and better lens with a tripod you would see better results than these, these test shots came from my 3.2Megapixel SE k800i camera phone which I chose because it’s the only camera I routinely take to the library. Users with newer phones with 5 or more megapixel cameras will almost certainly find that the pdfs produced are extremely readable even on small text. I intend to use Snapter to replace my photocopying, this makes the $50 pricetag for the full version (needed to fully enable the program’s Book mode after the free trial expires) extremely affordable. With photocopying running at about 3-6p per sheet the expense of photocopying personal copies of cases becomes substantial. Also, filing the vast amounts of photocopying which you naturally generate as a law student is a task which requires considerable discipline to avoid the dreaded student “pile of paper under the desk”, being able to directly create pdfs of reference books without needing to photocopy them is more economical and more ecological, with the added advantage of not being able to lose the files as easily as the photocopies.

There are other book scanning solutions but these tend to rely on the user being able to scan the book using a specially designed flatbed scanner(for example the PlusTek Optiscan) which is less than ideal in a law library. Snapter’s advantage comes from the convenience of being able to take a record of the exact text you need on the fly using nothing other than the devices you would already be carrying.

You can use it to inexpensively produce copies of cases for other people as well, instead of needing to recopy each page of your own photocopy for others you can simply email the pdf around, and you can also do the processing on your laptop as you are in the library, all while using your university’s reproduction licence. It’s not the fastest process so be aware that it will both drain battery life and take its time but it’s the only example of automatically transforming photos of books into documents that I’ve seen.  It’ll save paper, money and the environment in its own small way.

The direct competitor to this are the online legal databases which also give you the option of downloading a digital copy of the report to your computer and I find these a better option than hurriedly produced snapter pdfs, however, Westlaw does not provide copies of textbooks nor does it provide copies of cases which are either very old or very obscure and it is these situations where snapter shines.  If your law library provides paper copies of journals or law reports which are not available online in full text format then you need some way to make a copy for yourself.

With many of the most sought after books only available on loan from the library for a matter of hours a student may sometimes find that they spend the entire time they have with the book running it through a photocopier instead of reading it. A fast camera can take photos of every page of a textbook within a university’s stort loan time, this means that books which are extremely sought after (for example the set textbook) can be copied out. The prohibitive expense of photocopying a textbook is considerably lessened when you are operating in the fixed cost of a digital camera and a copy of Snapter, and remember that with law textbooks retailing for around £40 (and science subjects cost even more) from the university bookshop any use that a student can get from the library is to be pounced on.

For those students who are also looking using snapter to produce copies of music, students in Glasgow can use the libraries of other higher education institutions, including the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama on a reference only basis which means that you can use the RSAMD to find sheet music for yourself.  I read here that Snapter was less impressive at capturing music books but I disagree based on my experiences using the newest version.

I was so surprised that snapter gave such poor results on capturing music that I immediately grabbed a book of scales off my shelf and tried it for myself, I believe I have a newer version than was tested since I downloaded my copy last night. Again, I used a Sony Ericsson k800i camera phone which is only 3.2Mpx and although some of the text is smudged (small bold text had a harder time of it) because of the resolution and the height I had to take the picture at to get both pages in frame the edges of the picture were detected perfectly and there was no issue seeing marks on semiquavers or the like.

I’m all for snapter, I think it’s designed for times you couldn’t bring an automated book scanner with you – in my case when I’m at the reference library and it does very well using even phone photos in those situations. It beats having to scan photocopies at home or having no copy at all, that’s for sure. I think it will provide a very important service for students above all, but remember that the possiblity to generate digital versions of paperwork is often very useful even just for collaboration with other people by email. For instance emailing digital copies of forms to other professionals. Consider Snapter to be an extremely flexible (allowing for the easily foxed edge detection), inexpensive digitiser which can be used anywhere that a photocopier or a scanner would also work, with much less footprint and less time spent with the original.