Family Archivist

Help! I’m the Family Archivist!

Part V: Introduction to Digitization

By Rachel Smith

Preserving your family’s collection does not just end with finding a good storage location and suitable containers. There is another step you can take to ensure that future generations can enjoy and study your archive: digitization.

Making digital scans of your collection, especially your most delicate items, and saving those files to a secure location is a way of protecting photographs and documents if the originals fall apart or are accidentally destroyed. With digitization, you can safely share image files of items in your family archive with relatives and genealogy researchers around the world. If you are interested in creative projects using family photographs but you don’t want to harm the originals, digital scans of the images can be printed out and used to make scrapbooks, art, or even quilts and t-shirts! Even if you don’t consider yourself to be tech-savvy, digitizing a part or your whole collection is doable. However, you do need some special equipment and knowledge of how to digitize, save, and back up your files.

Before You Digitize

Before you start digitizing your archive, you should know what types of equipment are out there, how many things you want to digitize (your whole archive vs. a portion), and your budget. If you plan on scanning a large collection of photographs, you might want to consider purchasing a scanner. However, if you only want digital images of less than 50 documents, you don’t want to go out and buy $1,000 equipment. You should also know what is in your collection as well. If you want to digitize film negatives and/or projector slides, only a scanner with two light beds inside of it will get the job done.

No matter what type of technology you use to digitize your collection, you should always do your research first, especially if you plan to purchase something. Magazines like Consumer Reports and PC Magazine are good resources to read up on specific models. You can also look at blog posts and forums for genealogists and photographers to see what they recommend. Customer reviews for specific products on the internet can occasionally be reliable, but you should take some of them with a grain of salt. However, reviews with specific details about a scanner’s functions and performance beyond “Wow! What a great product!” or “This is the WORST” are generallymore trustworthy. Products with consistently poor reviews are very likely a poor investment as well.

In the end, if you don’t want to do the digitization yourself, but you would still like digital images of your collection, there are professional companies that can do it for you. The last section will discuss this in more detail.

Digitizing Equipment

This section will introduce you to some of the equipment you can use to capture digital images of your photographs and documents, as well as their pros and cons. You may already have some of this technology in your home or your pocket.

Large Flatbed Scanners

A flatbed scanner can scan photographs, documents, large documents (i.e. diplomas, certificates), and album pages. Many have a light bed with a removable lid on top, which after the lid is removed, can digitize film, film negatives, and projector slides.

PROS: Scans variety of mediums including film, variety of file formats (TIFF, JPEG, PDF, etc.) and sizes (up to 5000 DPI), scanning software is excellent, reliable and durable

CONS: Expensive (~$1,000 – $4,000), takes up a lot of desk space, heavy

All-in-One Printer/Scanner

If you own a printer that is 5 years or younger, it may already have a small scanner on it. If you already own one, is a great option if you are planning on digitizing a small portion of your collection (100> items).

PROS: You may already own one, scans JPEGS up to 600 DPI, good for smaller projects

CONS: Do not scan high quality images or image file types (TIFF, higher than 600 DPI), often does not come with editing software

Portable Flatbed Scanner

This is the smaller, more affordable cousin of the large flatbed scanner. Some models have two light beds in them, which can be used to digitize film negatives. Since they are portable and can plug into the USB port of laptop or computer, you can travel with them when visiting relatives and you want to make copies of photographs or documents. If you’re doing genealogy research, some archives and libraries may allow you to bring in a portable scanner IF YOU ASK EXPLICIT PERMISSION FIRST.

PROS: Less expensive (~$100-$400), portable and light, some models scan film negatives and slides, some can save multiple file formats (TIFF, JPEG, PDF) and high resolutions

CONS: Scanning software can be wishy-washy, some can’t digitize film, some can’t save TIFF files which are better for photographs

Digital Camera or Smartphone on a Tripod

You can even use a digital camera or smartphone’s camera to take pictures of your collection! There are some apps which will take a picture “scan” for you and save it as a PDF. If you have extra large items like maps or large genealogy charts, you can use a digital camera or smartphone to capture the item in its entirety. Just make sure first that you have good lighting!

PROS: May already own, can capture large-sized documents, tripods are inexpensive

CONS: Limited in file size and types (JPEGs, PNGs, >600 DPI); quality may vary depending on your “studio” set up; blurry pictures; not good for large quantities of photographs or documents; can’t take pictures of film

Out of the different types of technology you can use, I would recommend using a portable flatbed scanner because of its versatility, reliability, and more affordable price tag. They are a very good option if you are planning on digitizing most or all of your archive. Using technology you may already own, like an all-in-one printer or digital camera, is best for when you only want to digitize a small part of your collection.

However, you should never purchase a scanner with an automatic feeder. As convenient as these scanners are advertised, they suck your photographs and documents into the machine, making them prone to bends and tears. This is something you don’t want near your family archive, especially your oldest and most fragile items! It is much safer to handle your family heirlooms directly when digitizing them.

Outsourcing Digitization to a Professional

After examining your options, you may decide that you are not interested in or have the time to digitize your family archive yourself. If you would like to have a portion or all of your photographs or documents converted into digital scans, there are professional companies that will do the service for you. They can make scans of your photographs, film, home movies, and occasionally documents and save the files to an external hard drive, a set of CDs or flash drives, or a cloud storage service.

Before you outsource the scanning process, there are some questions you should always ask a individual or company first:

  1. Do you scan on site?
  2. How do you handle things like photographic prints, film negatives, and slides? (You want to ensure that the company won’t destroy your items after scanning them!)
  3. What equipment do you use for digitizing? (You want to ensure that your items will not be fed through a scanner with an automatic feeder!)
  4. Can you save in multiple file formats (JPG, TIFF)?
  5. If you desire: can you do photo editing and touch ups?
  6. How will you send me my files? (external hard drive, cloud storage, email, etc.)
  7. What are your rates/can you provide me a quote?

If you decide that you want to use a professional to digitize your collection, you should try doing a small batch of items (~50 items) first to see how you like their service.

Our museum itself does not provide digitization services. However, if there is a small collection of photographs or documents related to Fremont County that you are interested in loaning to the museum to digitize for our collections, we do offer loans for duplication. A future blog about preparing items from your family archive for donation to a museum, archive, and other cultural and historic institutions will discuss this topic further.

Family Archivist Series

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