Sep 23, 2022

(+) Scanning Large Documents

The following is a Plus Edition article, written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

A newsletter reader asked, “Can you think about addressing technology-related hardware such as hand scanners to use with maps, etc., that are too large to put on a flatbed scanner? Anything tool-wise that would be good to take on a library expedition may be of interest to readers, at least this one!”

In fact, the entire world has not always used 8½-inch by 11-inch pages, and not even the A4 size that is commonly used outside of North America. (A4 is 8.27 by 11.69 inches.) Genealogists frequently deal with larger maps, drawings, pedigree charts, and other oversized documents. What’s more, in years past, paper sizes were not standardized. In fact, paper documents from the seventeenth century are often written on parchment that does not have square corners or straight edges!

Indeed, how can we scan these documents for electronic preservation? As with many questions, the only correct answer is, “It all depends.” However, two or three answers pop to mind.

First, just because your local computer store only sells scanners that handle 8½ by 11-inch documents, do not believe that is the largest size available. You can find scanners that will handle much larger documents. A quick search on Google or any other search engine will quickly produce a listing of wide-format scanners that can handle pages up to 54 inches wide and almost infinite length. Most of these were designed to scan blueprints, color posters, architectural sketches, detailed maps, drawings, and fine art. In reality, they will work well on any individual large piece of paper that is not bound into a book or otherwise glued or attached to anything else.

You can see a few examples of these scanners at the following URL:

Be prepared for sticker shock, however. Some of these devices sell for $2,000 to as much as $30,000. The ones used to scan very large documents, such as newspapers, often weigh 200 pounds or more. I doubt if you will find many of them in genealogists’ homes! You are even less likely to be carrying one to your local genealogy library or archive. However, you may find these scanners available at FedEx Kinko’s or other office printing service stores. In such cases, you need to take the document to the store and hand it to an attendant, who will scan it for you and then store the image on a flash drive or CD-ROM. Of course, the store will charge a few dollars for the service, but that is much more cost-effective than purchasing your own wide-format scanner.

Another issue is paper handling. Many large-format scanners have rollers and other mechanical devices to feed the sheet of paper under the scanning mechanism. This may not be a good idea for fragile documents that are 200 or more years old. Finally, your local archive may not be receptive to your taking a 300-year-old piece of parchment outside in hostile weather to run down to Kinko’s!

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