Creating Class-worthy E-resources with Your Phone

The fall semester is looming. All those documents and articles and book chapters that you would scan at the GC library are sitting on your desk, but with no desktop scanner, you can’t make the PDFs that you’re used to.

Except … actually, you can. You may not have a big, powerful book scanner at your disposal, but you do (probably) have a phone. And with a phone (or tablet), you can make PDFs that are just as useful, and almost as clean, as the ones you made with the library’s Booksmart scanners.

On the left, a PDF made with a desktop scanner; on the right, the same page made into a PDF with OfficeLens on an Android phone.

Here are a few ways to make that happen.

Downloadable PDF Apps for iOS and Android

A purpose-built application will probably be the easiest solution to use. You don’t need a dedicated PDF maker (see below), but they’re more fully functional than native phone options and more straightforward to operate.

If you’re using the Microsoft Office suite that CUNY provides for students and affiliates, you might want to look into Microsoft’s free OfficeLens, as it can be expected to play nicely with those other applications. It will, for instance, upload the PDF you make directly to your OneSuite account.

OfficeLens allows you to add images you already have on your phone to a PDF document, which is handy if you’ve already been taking photos of book pages without a way to turn them into usable documents. You can annotate and edit the images before you make them into PDFs. Finally, and critically, it’s easy to use.

Similarly, Adobe has an offering (Adobe Scan) to create PDFs. If you are a hardcore Adobe Suite user, that might be the app for you. It also offers native Optical Character Recognition (OCR) conversion, to make your scanned docs into machine-readable text. One disadvantage of this solution, though, is that there’s no way simply to save the files you create; Adobe wants you to share your PDFs with links, ideally (to Adobe) using your paid Document Cloud service. You can email your docs without much trouble, but you can’t save to a specific location on your phone or tablet.

Google Drive’s phone app can create scans for you also; just tap the + icon at the bottom right corner, and one of the options that appears is Scan. This app will save your PDF directly to your Google Drive account (naturally). It’s simple enough to use, but has very limited features (no editing, no drawing or annotating).

There are many, many others for every phone OS. Check the reviews on the Apple Store or Google Play for any problems with your phone before you install, and don’t hesitate to scrap the app you picked if it doesn’t meet your expectations. You may end up trying a few different options before you find one you like.

Native PDF Conversion

You don’t even need an app, to be honest, either on an iOS device or on an Android. For any file on an iPhone or iPad, including a JPG or an email, follow these steps:

  • Tap the Share icon (or, in the Mail app, the reply/forward button).
  • Choose the Print icon in the bottom row of the sheet that appears (the black and white icons).
  • Go to the preview image at the bottom of the screen. Pinch and zoom out on the little preview thumbnail, and the file will turn into a PDF.
  • Tap the Share icon that now appears to save or export your new PDF.

Likewise, an Android device can save any image from the Gallery as a PDF. Open the image you want to transform into PDF form, tap the three dots in the upper right corner, and choose Print. On the printer menu in the dialog box that appears, choose “Save as PDF.” Then tap Save, and you’re done.

These options, though quick and using functions you already have on your phone, don’t allow for multiple-page PDFs; you’ll have to stitch your document together with another program (like Adobe Acrobat or Mac’s Preview). You won’t be able to add text or any other annotation without opening yet another program. And the process is clunky.

Potential Problems

You’re making your PDF from a photo, even if you’re creating it within a dedicated PDF creator app. That means you have to pay attention to all the things that make a photo good or bad: lighting, glare, positioning, and angle. If your source is crinkled or curved (like the middle pages of a fat book), your PDF will reflect that. If your phone is angled, most programs will try to adjust, but their ability to fix your images is limited. As a result, your process might be a bit more labor-intensive, as you scramble for good light, smooth out the pages, engineer ways to hold your books flat, and so forth.

You might also find that the PDFs you make on a mobile device are less easily converted into readable, searchable text with OCR, and (with the exception of Adobe Scan) will require an additional step with additional software once they get to your desktop.


Even a not-so-good PDF is better than no class material at all. In this COVID-limited situation, your phone can become a better tool for sharing scholarship than you could have imagined.


Featured photo illustration: phone in hand by PIXNIO; documents by Annie Spratt at Unsplash

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.