Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rabbinic Tricks of the Trade: Making Source Sheets (with a Smartphone)

Most teachers and rabbis use source sheets in their classes and lectures. They give the listener and learner a text to focus on and a sense of tangible connection to the material that they're studying. There are two general types of sheets:
1. Text bases sheets, built using the Bar Ilan CD (or some other similar source)
2. Scanned sheets of original sources
Many teachers prefer the first method for a simple reason: it's much, much easier. After all, you don't have to go scrounging through books for the right sources. You don't need to deal with scanners, resolution, or photocopying. You're good to go.

The Better Method: Scans of Original Materials
I personally prefer the second method despite the added difficulty because I feel that a student (or learner) should have a sense of the books that they're studying. Text is simply that: you can't look at a text and identify its source. You don't have a feel for the book that you're reading from. It's just text.
Source material scanned from books is just different. A text from Tanach looks fundamentally different...

than a piece from Mesillat Yesharim.

Also, many modern texts have vowels (which many students really need) as well as translations (which are very, very helpful). 
The problem with this method is obvious. It's a pain in the neck, especially if you use the old, old method of photocopying each source you'd like to use, cutting out the relevant text and pasting it on to your new page. If you're doing that, this post will save you a tremendous amount of time and energy.

The Old New Method: Scanner and Computer
For years, I scanned each book into my computer, imported the scan into a program called PaperPort, and then cut and paste (digitally) that source into a document in Microsoft Publisher. You can still do that, and it's a very effective method, but it's got shortcomings.
1. You have to have access to a scanner
2. You need to be able to bring the books to the computer, which isn't always possible. Often, I'd find myself in a library or a yeshiva Beit Midrash, and I couldn't take the book home with me to scan. At times I found myself asking to use a local copier, just to be able to take the source with me. But that's not much better than manual cutting and pasting.
Thankfully, I've found a solution that's (mostly) free, easy and incredibly convenient, allowing me to make source sheets in almost no time at all, using readily available digital tools. All you need is a smartphone.

The Smartphone Solution
(I've got an Android phone, but I think that the apps that I mention are widely available on iPhones as well)
Step 1: Acquiring the Texts
Camscanner Screenshot
Many business people have long realized that the camera on their phone is of sufficient quality to simply take a picture of needed documents. This method works quite well. Moreover, I found an amazing App called CamScanner, which allows you to take a picture of a document (or sefer), which it then transforms into a black and white pdf document (which is exactly what you need for your source sheets!). Moreover, the program allows you to group the scans into a single pdf document. So, just for example, I'm giving a shiur tonight on Shining Shoes on Chol Hamoed. I wanted to use the Steinzaltz version of the Gemara (because it has vowels), so I went into our shul Beit Midrash with my smartphone, and five minutes later had the scans that I needed for the shiur. 
Step 2: Uploading to the Web
This is actually the easiest aspect of the job, as your smartphone does all the work for you. Camscanner allows you to share your document in about a zillion ways. If you've got Dropbox, you can do it that way. (If you don't have Dropbox, you really, really should have it - but that's another post. If you don't have it and would like it, please click here, as I'll get more free space.) I actually started using a program called Evernote, which allows you to keep a virtual notebook on the web. Either way is fine. You can even email yourself the file. It really doesn't matter, as long as you get the pdf to your computer.

Step 3: Opening the file and copying it
To me, it's important that the scans remain at a high resolution for your source sheets. The best way to do this is to use a free PDF program called Foxit Reader. The program allows you to take a picture of your open document, and even more importantly, set the resolution of the picture that you're copying, so that you can ensure that your sheets are at a good (high) resolution.
Go to Tools >> Preferences and click on "General". There you'll find an option to "Use fixed resolution for snapshots. Check that. I set mine to 300, which is high, but great for sheets.


Now you just click on the Camera to take a snapshot, and highlight an area of text that you want to copy. 
This will copy your text onto the clipboard.

Step 4: Placing Your Text in Microsoft Publisher
Actually, you don't really need an added program like Publisher to make this work. You can do it in Microsoft Word if you'd like (and you don't want to pay for Publisher). But it can be a pain to work with a bunch of images in Word, and this is exactly what Publisher is made for, so it's really worth the added expense. (And thus far in this little exercise, you haven't spent a dime!)
Just open a new document in Publisher (you can set up a template for your source sheets if you like) and Paste in your image.


You can the resize, move your image around - whatever you like. Add Source numbers, text, etc. and there you got - you've got Sheets!
Simply save your work as a PDF file (or print yourself), and you're done. (If you're interested, here is the final sheet shared on Evernote).

While this method might take you a few minutes longer the first time you do it, after a few tries you'll find that you're spending less and less time making your actual sheets, and more time preparing the sources you need to teach.