Building a Personal Archive, Digitally


Let’s say you have a ton of photos, slides, documents, tapes, and other family history items lying around the house and decide one day, wouldn’t it be neat to make digital copies to share with other family members.  Or maybe you just want to digitize for your own sake, perhaps to include older photos in a digital photo frame.  What should be the next step?  Below is the first in a series of posts dealing with the “next steps” in archiving photographs, audio, documents and video.

Before you get started on digitizing your photograph collection, the best thing to do is create a plan of attack.  If you have tons of photos, you may not want to make a digital copy of all of them.  The Library of Congress has a website that covers how to archive digital photos, but the steps suggested serve as a good starting point for print photos as well.  First you want to gather your prints and slides and sort through them to identify the ones you want to digitize.  Next you want to organize them and then make the digital copies.  One thing you might want to do before getting started is to purchase some archival safe photo storage boxes, which can be picked up at craft stores and large retailers.  It is a good idea to mark the boxes as scanned or unscanned, in case you want to go back and scan more later.  Another thing to keep in mind when dealing with prints and slides is you really don’t want to write on the back of them, especially with ink or any kind of marker.  A safer way to keep notes on photos is to use a notebook or a program such as Word to write out the captions.  You can them write down the file name after you scan and save the photo.

Once you are organized and have a set of photos and/or slides to scan, you want to purchase a scanner.  Both PC Magazine and ConsumerSearch have review sections so you can compare features and get an idea of how different models fare in editor tests.  If you have slides or negatives to scan, keep an eye out for features such as the ability to scan multiple images or included slide tray and make sure to note any comments in the reviews that talk about image quality from transparent sources.  If you have a lot of slides or negatives, you may even want to consider two scanners, one for photos and a dedicated film scanner for transparent items.

After all the planning, you finally get to scan.  The two most important techie terms to know about when it comes to scanning are file type and dpi.  There are hundreds of different file types for digital images, but you really only want to use two of them, TIFF and JPEG.  Both are acceptable for archiving, but there are differences between the two.  JPEG is a universal file type that produces smaller files by compressing the image.  The downside of JPEG is the compression is done by removing aspects of the photo, but this is mostly accomplished by removing colors or minutia not typically seen by the human eye.  TIFF does not compress the image at all, but the files are usually pretty large, up to 4 times the size of a JPEG.  Far more important is the dpi, or dots per inch, which basically translates to how many specific dots of color will appear in every inch of the scanned photo.  The lower the dpi, the lower the resolution and file size.  The general rule of thumb is, you can use a lower dpi for larger originals, but should always increase the dpi for smaller originals.  The National Archives uses a minimum of 200 dpi for an 8” x 10”, 400 dpi for a 4” x 6” and a 1400 dpi for slides and negatives.  If the scanning software offers an option to preview the scan, it is a good idea to use it.  This will allow you to see and adjust the margins of the scanned area.  Often, light area on a photo and slides may not be picked up by the software, so you need to increase the margins.  If in doubt, give yourself a wider margin since you can crop out excess blank space in photo editing software.

Once you have done all the scanning, make sure to organize and preserve your files.  For more information on storage options, see last month’s post on digital storage.  If you plan on editing the finished scans, it is always a good idea to save the original scan so you don’t have to rescan if something goes wrong during the editing process.  Finally, you may want to check out Your Digital Life for more product reviews (scanners, storage options, software) and creative ideas on what to do with your photos now that they are scanned.
Join us next month for tips on preserving family documents.

- Laura N.

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