Personal Digital Archiving – Scanning DIY or Outsource?

By Erin Engle

At our personal digital archiving events, we get various questions about scanning family photos, slides, negatives and film. Questions like:  What type of scanner should I use? What resolution should I use?  How can I scan negatives? While we’ve focused on developing tips and resources for saving personal digital materials  created with software and hardware, we recognize that individuals have the both analog and digital materials and are looking for guidance on how to deal with both.

If you’re interested in converting your personal collections of photos or documents to digital files, you have two options. One, you can scan your own materials (or DIY). Two, you can outsource or use a scanning service to do it for you.

Do It Yourself
On our personal digital archiving scanning handout (PDF), we provide some basic steps about digitizing photos, documents and slides using a personal scanner.  This handout is a step-by-step overview touching on preparing the scanner and items, saving scanned items and access and storage tips. As always, when you’re working with your own hardware, consult your scanner’s manual for more specific information.

We also use this blog as an opportunity to informally share with you more detailed tips about scanning your photos or documents.  Barry Wheeler wrote excellent posts, describing scanning resolutions and scanner settings: What resolution should I use, part l and part 2. He does a great job explaining the how and why of the scanning process.

If you plan to embark on a scanning project at some point in the future, there are some resources to help you protect your family collections in the meantime. Most of this advice is preventive and includes low-levels of effort for caring and storing your collections. I’ve found that ALA’s Preservation Week Resource List  points to web-based information by format, which is quite handy if you’re looking for starting points.

Use a Scanning Service
As we’ve mentioned before, we can’t recommend personal archiving commercial services or tools. But if I was choosing a service to digitize my personal collection, these are some factors I would take into consideration based on what’s important to me.

Digitizing your collection is an investment.  How much are you willing to invest may drive your decision about choosing a service. A quick way to determine costs is to estimate the size of your collection or number of items and find out the service’s price per scan. This will give you a rough idea of the cost.

Aside from the cost of the service, there is also a “hidden” cost of storing your digital files now and in the future. You should have at least two copies of your archive on your choice of media (computer, CD/DVD, external hard drive or cloud). Think about what long-term storage options you’re most comfortable with and look into how much those storage medium cost too.

Scanning resolution
What resolution will the images be scanned at? Commercial scanning resolutions can range from 300 dpi (dots per inch) to 3000 dpi, depending on the type of material scanned.  The higher the dpi, the larger the file, the more storage (on external media, optical or cloud) it requires.

The service may offer different resolution options so think about what you want to do with your scanned materials, particularly the photos. If you’re interested in sharing them, uploading them to photo sharing sites or printing them out, the resolution matters.  For example, if you’ll print photos at 4”x6” and 5”x7”, they can be scanned at 300 dpi. Larger print sizes, like 8″x10″ can be scanned at 600 dpi or greater. If you’re most concerned with saving them long-term, the highest-quality setting may be your best option.

What file format will your converted materials will be delivered in?

For photographs, JPEG (JPG) and TIFF (.TIF) are the standard file formats most commercial services use for conversion.  Generally, the JPEG format is a long-term consumer-level storage format, and it is also good for viewing software, uploading to photo sharing sites, or emailing. TIFF is generally thought of as a good long-term archival format when file size is not a consideration. TIFF files uncompressed and are larger than JPEGs, and therefore quite large. Again, the larger the file, the more storage space they require.

Scanned documents can be saved as TIFFs or PDFs (PDF). Both formats are portable and accessible. PDFs enable smaller file size versus TIFF.   There are arguments for the merits of using either for long-term access, so it may come down to which format you’re more familiar working with or have knowledge about.

Storage and Access
Once your collection is converted, how does the service deliver your digital files? Does it return them on CD’s or DVD’s, external drives, or offer copies in the cloud?  Does it provide you with the option of copies on multiple storage media? Some services now provide online access for photos, which may allow you to share and download them.  Keep in mind that saving the only copy of your photos on photo sharing sites is not a best practice.

Care and Handling
How does the company care for and handle your materials? Does it restore old, fragile or damaged photos, documents or film? Careless handling during the conversion process could lead to damage of your originals.

Another thing to think about is if you’ll ship your collection to the service. There are no guarantees of safety or security with mailing services. If this is a concern, look into local scanning services where you can drop off your materials instead of shipping them.

Like I said, these are the factors I would take into consideration when choosing a scanning service.  Converting your family collections to into digital formats is a transition or preparation step to managing your entire personal digital archive.  Those digital files, along with any personal born-digital materials, can then be cared for long-term in the same way.

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