Libraries. Not places I ever went to before becoming a student again. Strange places, with people apologetically whispering, or wandering around bored but trying not to show it. Places where you can't eat or drink, or (quite often) actually take out the books you want to read. Those biggest and most expensive reference works, that often provide the way in to a subject or essay, mostly have "FOR REFERENCE ONLY" stamped on the spine. Or you just can't work well in the place because some of your friends are in there, and it's too tempting to chat with them. Or you just plain work better in a place with no other people that distract you just by walking around, or sitting there on their laptop checking Facebook, which just reminds you how little you're enjoying the current page you're reading and re-reading.

So, take a photocopy, right? Well, yes, in theory. But in practice, most Cambridge Uni libraries have their own unique photocopying card, which come in £5 increments, and can't be used in any other library. So you don't want to get a card unless you know you're going to use it a lot. Or some libraries don't have a photocopier, or it's too near a librarian and you worry you might be incur their wrath by copying too many pages from a single book. But even if you do manage to photocopy some pages, you've then got no way of getting those important words from the paper into your essay, or into a searchable form. It's like they're still locked into the book.

If only you could bring in your laptop and a flatbed scanner, and afford £200 for good enough OCR software. And even if you could carry all that around and find sockets to power it all, it's a very slow process, taking 3 to 5 minutes per page to get some useful text.

Well, this is now possible on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device, and for just a measly £4.99. You take a picture with the phone's camera, select the part you want to 'read', and you get the recognised text in only 20-30 seconds. (And for those Biblical scholars amongst you, more remarkably still, it gets words and passages of koine Greek done too.) This amazing app is called TextGrabber, and is written by ABBYY, the same people that made the expensive OCR software I bought a decade ago, where you needed to train on every letter in the alphabet. Thankfully computing power, and their algorithms, has improved significantly since then. As long as the photo is a good quality one to start with, it will normally cope with full reference footnotes too, despite the funny mixtures of abbreviations, numbers and proper names.

Each 'page' of text gets saved in the app, and can be edited in place. (It currently adds more line breaks than it needs to, which I tend to edit out at this stage.) And then with two taps it can be share out to email, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, or the clipboard so that other apps can pick it up. I mainly later copy to the clipboard and then beam it (using the previously mentioned BeamApp) to my laptop when I'm back in my study working on the notes or essay.

It really seems like magic the first time you use it --and doesn't even need an internet connection, unlike some other OCR services out there. Available from the iTunes Store.

TextGrabber reading some text

TextGrabber reading some text

AuthorJonathan Clark