Technology Tools for the Modern Scholar
Lately I’ve been reading an essay by the Christian Transcendentalist and anti-war writer, Caleb Sprague Henry, titled, The Importance of Elevating the Intellectual Spirit of the Nation (1837).
It’s an excellent essay, and supports my growing conviction that people were more literate and intellectually sophisticated in the 19th century than they are today, and that those of us who are interested in elevating culture should spend more time reading 19th century works like this one.
I’ll devote another post to a general discussion of his essay. At present the important point is his suggestion that (1) the work of scholars is vitally important in preserving culture, and, (2) inasmuch as scholars seldom receive sufficient support from the public at large or governments, we need to help each other — building up a Brotherhood of Scholars, to use his phrase.
In view of this, the goal of this post is for me to share with other modern scholars some of the technological tools that I’ve found most helpful. By ‘scholars’, of course, I don’t mean people who do research for selfish reasons — money, glory, or academic tenure. But rather for those true scholars who feel genuinely called to this work for moral and spiritual reasons: for God’s glory, and to help humanity. (If to write such a thing as the last sentence seems incredibly ‘old school’ by today’s standards, that is indicative of the very problem we face today: a disconnection of society from spiritual values.)
Nevertheless, anyone is more than welcome to benefit from the suggestions offered here.
In rough order of descending value, here are my favorite technological tools for scholarship:
When I learn of a new book of possible interest, the first thing I do is check Google Books to see if it is previewable there. If it is an older book, and I’m only interested in a chapter, I click the gear icon on the upper right to see if full text is available. If so, I cut and paste the plain text into a Word document (unfortunately this can only be done a few pages at a time) so I have my own file. I highlight when I read, so simply reading in the Google Books preview window isn’t a good option.
If the book is new, then you can’t view plain text, and can only preview page images. In this case I use the next tool.
This is very simple tool that (1) takes a snapshot of any area of your computer screen, and (2) applies optical character recognition (OCR) to convert any text in the image to editable text. So, for example, I preview a page of a book in Google Books, press a hotkey to invoke Screenshot Reader, capture and translate the text, and paste it into a Microsoft Word document for later reading. I might do this for several pages or even an entire chapter, if that’s available for previewing.
Back to older books. If I want to download an older book in pdf format, I usually don’t do this from Google Books. The reason is that Google Books pdf files are not editable. So instead I use the next website.
Many older books I want have been scanned and uploaded to archive.org, where they can be downloaded. Books are available in several formats, including epub and pdf. Unlike Google Books, these pdf files are usually editable (which means that you can highlight and copy passages from them).
If it’s a newer book I want, then I may need to buy it. Often I buy used versions. A handy feature of Amazon is that it includes a link to used copies of a given title. I pick a used version that looks promising (good price, not beat-up, reliable vendor), and Amazon centralizes the ordering and billing.
This is my nearest university library. While I have my issues with the CalState University System generally, I’m not one to ‘bite the hand that feeds me.’ As a member of the community (i.e., non-student and non-faculty), I’m allowed to read books in the library — and, importantly, to use the computers for scanning books. This is a very generous policy, and not all universities, not even all public universities, are so considerate.
Sometimes I bring in a book I’ve bought, or sometimes take a book off the shelves there — and use the large-bed scanners and OCR software to produce an editable pdf version. By this point it might be apparent to readers that I do not read paper books anymore. For me, anything worth reading is worth excerpting from — and that’s much easier to do with a pdf file.
I can also use the library computers to download reprints from JSTOR.
The Great Courses is a great idea. They offer university-level courses on video or mp3 files. The mp3 versions especially are a real bargain. I’ve previously listed what I consider to be some of their better courses here.
Want to play an mp3 lecture in your car, but don’t have a port built into the car’s audio system? No problem. Buy one of these babies, plug it into your cigarette lighter, and you’re good to go. It has a built-in transmitter that sends a signal to your car radio. You supply the mp3 file(s) via a an SD card or USB memory stick that plugs into the unit.
These are great. The only problem is that the quality varies. Some put out a weak signal, which produces a lot of static when listening. To be honest, I buy cheapo imports two or three at a time, and just use the one that works best.
Sometimes I end up with a pdf file that is not editable (e.g., from Google Books.) In that case I process the file with ABBY PDF Transformer. This performs OCR and produces an editable pdf file (or MS Word document if you prefer). However, if you have a new version of Adobe Acrobat, that will do the same thing.
For a while I experimented with text-to-speech software to convert scanned books and typed documents into synthesized speech. (I could then, e.g., listen to a book in my car.) This was an interesting experiment, though eventually I found even the best speech synthesis (the technology is quite amazing) kind of boring to listen to. It’s probably better for technical material than literature. Nevertheless, I wanted to mention this as an option.
Of course, no list would be complete without YouTube. There’s a ton of educational and edifying material at YouTube. Just search for “documentaries” to get started.