NEWS

Saving the world's books one image at a time

Billie Owens

Image technician Nuri Baghi gingerly places a well-worn volume written in Hebrew into the book-scanning machine. The machine can capture the images of 2,400 pages an hour, saving printed material electronically for libraries, universities and businesses.

The APT2400 is the flagship product of 6-year-old Kirtas Technologies.

The company, located in the Omnitech Place business park, creates permanent, high-quality electronic copies of printed works that could otherwise fall victim to time, get lost or stolen, catch fire or be vandalized.

Baghi, who prefers wearing his black Kangol cap backward, nestles the book in a V-shaped "cradle." It was published in 1861, and the pages turned ivory long ago. The spine seems ready to give out.

Robotic clasps hold it top and bottom. A rectangular, paddle-like arm is brought down, and the process begins.

With a relentless precision that is almost hypnotic, a little wisp of air puffs a few pages apart and a page lifts so the paddle's light suction can catch the page and turn it over. Catch a page and turn it over. Catch a page, turn it over.

The cradle imperceptibly adjusts the weight distribution as the bulk of the pages begin shifting to the other side.

Cameras poised at angles above take pictures of the pages and they appear instantly on Baghi's computer screen next to the machine.

Now in digital format, the antique book can be stored on the computer, e-mailed, posted on the Internet. It's virtually certain the newly minted e-book will always exist somewhere.

An opportunity

Less than half a percent of information from the last 500 or 600 years has been digitally saved, and the quality of what has been saved is even less than that," said founder and CEO Lotfi Belkhir.

"I saw digitization as key — from books to bytes. With the access to information a trend, with a knowledge (based) economy, I thought, 'Why hasn't this happened?' Until recently, there was no technological enabler."

Libraries, universities, government agencies — or anyone else willing to pay a retail price of $189,000 — can buy the APT2400. The APT1200, which captures 1,200 images an hour, costs $149,000.

"These machines are 10 to 20 times faster than humans and more gentle," Belkhir said.

In addition to selling the machines, Kirtas sells software and handles on-site scanning for businesses that prefer to outsource the work to Kirtas.

He launched the company using seed money from Victor entrepreneur Tony Ilacqua, of Applied Mechanical Technologies. Ilacqua also provided in-kind investment by providing office space and making engineers and designers available for initial product development.

Along with funding from other individuals and institutions, plus loans from Ontario County, about $5 million was raised and spent during the first four years. This was a crucial period Belkhir calls the "Valley of Death," when many start-ups fail.

Today, Kirtas employs nearly 100 people.

A skeptic

Microsoft Corp. struck a deal with Kirtas late last year to use its technology so Microsoft could offer Internet users access to Cornell University Library's vast collection. And Kirtas joined forces with a subsidiary of Amazon last month to preserve rare books at universities and public libraries and distribute them. Emory University in Atlanta is among Kirtas' more than 100 customers.

Google has its own book-scanning machine.

Unlike Google's machine, the APT2400 can handle "fold outs" — pages that open out and are larger than the rest of the pages. It also can cut "signature sheets" when they are found — those few pages that sometimes don't get cut on the outside.

But rare-book curator Alan Jutzi isn't impressed.

He's responsible for 500,000 rare books, manuscripts and pamphlets at the renowned Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Merino, Calif.

"You can't (turn pages) by machine," Jutzi said. "You'll rip it apart. It's a mechanical device, and things happen. That's just the way it is. I wouldn't allow him to do it."

Rare books are irreplaceable and highly valued, with collectors paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases. One torn page and the value for collectors plummets dramatically.

Kirtas' machine and similar devices are more practical when it comes to capturing the image of common books, like law books or other reference works, Jutzi said.

His biggest concerns about book-scanning technology are whether it can conserve books as they are, the resolution or quality of the images, and the practicality of access.

"What about the finding tools?" asked Jutzi. "If you type in 'King Lear,' are you going to get 10 million sources?"

The major part of the Huntington's collection has been photographed the old-fashioned way. The tedious and meticulous process has been ongoing for more than 50 years. Other prestigious libraries, like England's Oxford and Cambridge universities, have been doing likewise.

The company currently handling the Huntington's work, Thomson Gale, uses six cameras to capture 1,000 images a day. As always, the pages are turned by hand, which Jutzi maintains is the safest method.

'Radical innovation'

Belkhir understands some curators' reticence but maintains his patented products, software and services are unparalleled.

They are the result of Belkhir's penchant for "radical innovation." It all started at Xerox Corp. in the mid-'90s, where he went to work as a research scientist. (He earned a doctorate in physics from Stony Brook University and completed a post-doctorate residency at Indiana University.)

He then worked in product development, management and strategic planning.

"I asked myself, 'Why was Xerox not making money on its innovations?'"

It was the incubator for products and ideas that went on to earn billions of dollars for others.

"I thought you can't just use existing resources to develop products faster and 10-percent cheaper — that's what the competition does," Belkhir said.

On the other hand, some companies are into "blue sky" development, creating really cool stuff that's not that marketable.

He likens product development to rearing children. The tall, trim native of Tunisia is the father of five.

Some companies have one child; they're a "one-trick pony." Others have kids and then find foster parents for them. But raising several children, like developing ideas, is demanding and time-consuming.

"Initially, children only eat and don't produce anything," he said. "They need a lot of attention, love and be allowed to just goof around."

According to his world view, just as good parenting results in productive adults, nurturing the creative process can result in products that meet real-world needs.

Billie Owens can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 320, or at bowens@mpnewspapers.com.