Scanners are no longer the bulky, copy-machine clones that take up the same amount of space as a Thanksgiving dinner - today’s sleek machines pack a powerful punch. Often the same size or smaller than many notebook computers, flatbed scanners are capable of scanning full pages of text in color or grayscale, are powered by a single Universal Serial Bus (USB) cord, are fast and quiet, and offer a whole host of features and capabilities at a very reasonable cost.

But you’re an historian, not a computer techie. How will you know which is the best flatbed scanner for your purposes? What exactly is a flatbed scanner? What’s a USB cable? These questions and more threaten to drive you back to the ATM for more cash to put on your copy card. Fortunately, this is where the Electronic Researcher can deliver you from the evils of techno jargon and provide some recommendations as to which flatbed scanner might be best for you.

There are several aspects of flatbed scanners that are important for researchers to consider. Maximum resolution, bit depth, maximum document size, interface, size, weight, and price are the most important. What follows is a quick look at what each of these characteristics mean for the digital researcher.

Maximum resolution is one of the most important characteristics for flatbed scanners. Simply put, scanner resolution is a measurement of the maximum unit of measure that the scanner can capture from the document to the image. Flatbed scanners normally measure resolution in dots per inch (dpi). A dot is a small spot that, when combined with others, forms a graphic image. The greater the dpi, the sharper and clearer the image will be, even at higher magnification.

Bit depth is similar to maximum resolution, except that it is a measurement of data. That is, how much data (number of bits) the scanner is capable of copying from an image. The higher the bit depth, the more colors the scanner can scan from an image. For example, a flatbed scanner capable of scanning at 24 bit depth can capture a total of 16,777,216 colors and a scanner capable of scanning at 48 bit depth can capture a total of 33,554,432 colors. This is an important consideration if you will be scanning photographic images.

Maximum document size is also an important consideration when comparing flatbed scanners. This is a measurement of the largest size document that can be scanned at one time. As a minimum, you will want 8.5 inches by 11.0 inches. This will ensure that you will be able to scan a regular sized piece of typing or copy paper as one image.

Interface is a description of how the flatbed scanner will connect and communicate with your notebook computer. Without the proper interface, the flatbed scanner you have chosen will not work properly and you will be back at the ATM for cash to add more money to your copy card. For this characteristic, less is definitely best. By far the easiest and most convenient interface is the USB connection. The current USB 2.0 connection provides a single cable to both power the flatbed scanner through your notebook computer and to send the digital image that you have scanned to the notebook for manipulating and storage.

Size and Weight can be just as important as the other characteristics highlighted in this guide. After all, just because you can super size your favorite fast food meal, it does not mean that you want to super size your flatbed scanner. You are a researcher, not a weight lifter.

Price - in the end it may come down to what you can afford. There are several very versatile and capable flatbed scanners available for less than $150.00. Keep your eyes open for end-of-model year sales, closeouts, and manufacture’s rebates. With the cost of copies ranging from 15 to 50 cents per page, the flatbed scanner will soon pay for itself. And, once you have created a digital image of the document that you want to copy, you can store it, archive it, share it, and otherwise manipulate it a whole lot easier than a paper copy.

The table below details a fraction of the scores of flatbed scanners available at leading retail stores and through Internet sales. Do not forget your college or university computer store. You can often save a substantial amount of money if you qualify for academic pricing. Prices listed in the table are through as of 3/28/2004.

So whether it is the full text of the Nuremburg Trials or the complete photographic collection of the history of ants, once you have purchased your scanner and read through the accompanying literature, you will be able to digitize to heart’s content and kiss the ATM goodbye, except when you need more cash to super size that burger and fries. Happy scanning!


Brand & Model

Maximum Resolution

Bit Depth

Maximum Document Size




Canon LiDE 30 USB FB

1200 x 2400 dpi


8.5 x 11.7 inches

USB 2.0

10.1 x 15.1 x 1.3 inches / 3.3 pounds


Canon CanoScan 3200 FB Color

1200 x 2400 dpi


8.5 x 11.7 inches

USB 2.0

10.2 x 18.7 x 2.7 inches / 6.1 pounds


Canon LiDE 80 Color FB

2400 x 4800 dpi


8.5 x 11.7 inches

USB 2.0

10.1 x 14.7 x 1.5 inches / 4.0 pounds


HP Sanjet 4600 See-Thru FB Color

2400 x 2400 dpi


8.5 x 11.7 inches

USB 2.0

11.8 x 16.3 x 0.7 inches / 3.1 pounds


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