Family Archivist

Help! I’m the Family Archivist!

Part VI: Digitization and Importing

By Rachel Smith

In last week’s blog, we discussed the benefits of digitizing your family archive and the different kinds of technology you can use to do it. If you purchased a scanner, you want to ensure that you have downloaded its software to your computer prior to scanning.

If you remember the sample “Digitize Your Archive” workflow from Blog 2, today’s blog will cover steps 1-3 of that process.

  1. Capture
  2. Import
  3. Rename
  4. Back Up
  5. Archive
  6. Edit, Export, Share (Optional)

For simplicity’s sake, this blog will only describe how to use a flatbed scanner (portable or large). You may already know how to use a scanner, but please don’t skip this blog entirely! We will also discuss how to set up your folders on your computer and name your files, which will help you organize your digitized family archive. It also never hurts to learn new tips!

Before You Begin Digitizing

Before you capture your photographs and documents, there are some things you should keep in mind. Make sure that you work with your collection one batch at a time, box by box and envelope by envelope. This will ensure that all the hard work you did organizing your archive stays intact. It is also less overwhelming to capture, import, rename, and sort 20 photographs at a time versus 2,000!

Make sure that you have a single location to save all of your digitized items. A laptop or computer that is not short on storage space is a good bet. Within your computer, save all of your digitized items to a single location, which you can call “Photo Library”, “[Family Name] Archive”, or whatever name makes the most sense to you. Inside of that folder, you can create more folders such as “Family Documents” or “Family Photographs”. Within those subfolders, you can make additional subcategory folders by decades (i.e. 1890s, 1950s), family lines, subject matter (i.e. weddings, holidays), or individual persons.

Here is a sample file path to give you an idea of what this could look like. Each arrow represents a different folder:

X: (This PC)

  • Photo Library
  • Family Photographs
  • 1910s
  • 1920s
  • 1930s
  • 1940s
  • 1950s

Having a consistent file organization system will make it easier for you in the future to find specific documents or photographs. Make sure that you write down what your file scheme is and keep it in a secure location, possibly with your physical family archive.

At this point, you should also decide whether or not you want to save your image files as JPEGs or TIFFs, which are different file extensions. Images with a TIFF (.tif) file extension are very high quality files, and they will never break down when you open or view the image file. However, they take up a lot of storage space on hard drives. Images with a JPEG (.jpg) file extension are smaller file sizes and are easier to send on the internet, but they are not high quality and the pixels will start to break down the more the file is opened.

In general, TIFFs are the best for scanning photographs and film, where fine details count, and JPEGs work better for digitizing paper documents. If you have a TIFF file that you would like to share with a cousin through email, you can always save a copy of the original file as a JPEG. However, the reverse is not true since you can’t go from low quality to high quality files.

Capture and Import

This tutorial on how to use a flatbed scanner is based on the large flatbed scanner and software that I use at the museum: the EPSON Expression 10000 XL and EPSON Scan program. However, other flatbed scanners and scanning software are very similar in their design and operation. Refer to the manual which came with your scanner with more details about how to use it and its software.

1. Wash your hands before handling any items. If you are working with photographs and film, wear a pair of nitrile or microfiber gloves. Open the lid of your scanner and remove dust from the scanner bed with a bulb syringe, microfiber cloth, or artist’s brush.

1A. If you are scanning film, remove the cover from the top light bed.

2. Delicately remove any dirt or dust on your photograph with a bulb syringe, artist’s brush, or another soft brush.

3. Turn on your scanner and open your scanning software. Set the format to Reflective for photograph prints or documents. Set the format to Film for negatives, film strips, or slides.

4. Set your resolution (DPI, or Digital Pixels per Inch). 600 DPI is recommended.

5. Under image type, choose “24-bit color” even for B&W prints or documents. Monochrome photographs will look washed out if they are scanned in grayscale!

6. Click on the Save Icon (it often looks like a manila folder). Set your save home location as your master Photo Library folder. Don’t worry about saving the file to its final subfolder until after you have scanned it. Choose your image file format as either a TIFF or JPEG.

7. Place your photograph or document face down on the scanner bed. For film, if you purchased a scanner with a light bed in the lid, it may have come with trays where you can place negatives or slides. Place the film shiny side down. Close the lid and hit the Preview Button in your software, which will bring up your preview window.

Use your mouse to drag and select the area that you would like to scan and hit the Zoom button to zoom in.

8. OPTIONAL/ADVANCED: if your software has it, you can use the buttons under “Adjustments” in your program to tweak colors, tones, brightness, contrast, etc. The histogram function is especially helpful for balancing light and dark tones.

9. Hit the Scan button to start scanning your photograph or document!


After you have finished digitizing a single batch of photographs/documents, you can now rename the files so that they are descriptive and easy to find. Basically, if you have scanned 100 photographs of your grandfather, you don’t want them all to be named JohnSmith1.tif, JohnSmith2.tif, etc. because if you’re looking for a specific image, it won’t be easy to find. Incorporating brief descriptions (3-5 words) and dates in your title can be helpful.

Poor: JohnSmith1.tif

Good: 1999Smith_John.tif

Best: 1999-01-01Smith_John_Birthday.tif

Of course, your titles don’t have to be so long that they stretch across your screen. You can use dashes (-) or underscores (_) to separate words. Don’t use slashes (/) or periods (.) to separate words because your computer may have trouble reading and opening the files!

Dates are also useful to include if you know the year or date when a photograph was taken. You can format them in a YYYY-MM-DD (ex. 1965-10-31) or MM-DD-YYYY (ex. 10-31-1965) style.

No matter which file naming convention you use, you should keep it consistent and write down a legend so you know how to name the files you have yet to digitize. Once you have renamed your files, you can now cut and paste or drag and drop the photographs in their final subcategory folders. And then repeat the process with your next batch!

Family Archivist Series

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