A Scan Plan & Creating A Personal Digital Archive

I recently read a blog post that suggested a “scanning party” as a great excuse for people to get together and start creating a digital archive of old photographs, diaries, sketchbooks, artwork for them self.  I thought that was a pretty good idea.   I think to make it work you need to have both the means and inclination to tackle this kind of a project, because while it’s a great idea and a great way to start creating a digital record of precious memories, scanning can be more complicated than it sounds.

To start out I think that scanning some of your photographs etc.. is a great idea.  It makes it easy to share old family photos because you can get them reprinted and restored, and means you have a way to create your own personal archive and memory books, or you can have an archive of files to incorporate into projects down the line.  I have digitized a lot of my own stuff in the past, some of it I scanned for use in projects, some of it was to reprint, and some of it was to archive.  I think that as an activity on the whole if this is something you are interested in it is time well spent and a wonderful way to save memories provided you have the time and means to do it.

While I really love the idea of the scanning party it irked me a little that there wasn’t more information about the process of scanning in the post itself.    With that being said I have helped people create some pretty big digital archives and there are definitely some suggestions I can make to help you get started.

The key to the success of any project can be found in good preparation. 

Before you pull all your boxes of photographs out of the closet and haul all your old dusty albums off the shelf and start scanning everything you own, ask yourself: Why do I want to scan everything? Just doing it because, is not a very good reason.  Scanning is time consuming and ultimately will create more digital clutter for you to deal with if not done with intent.  So…

What is your goal?

Why are you taking the time to scan your way through a box of pictures? Is it to empty out a box? Kill time? Create a personal digital archive of old pictures?

Ask yourself is this is the kind of project I am capable of starting and seeing through to the end?

If the answer is “No” then maybe you should go back and refine your idea, make the scope of the project a little smaller and more manageable, or maybe you should table it for now and leave it for a time when you are more focused and have more time to work on it.  A scanning project like this is definitely something you want to tackle after you’ve finished all your cleaning and organized all your other stuff.  Remember,  the goal here isn’t to spend days scanning everything you own, but to curate a selection of items that mean something to you and scan that selection.

Be emotionally ready to work on this project. 

It might sound stupid but, old photographs and family heirlooms can carry a lot of emotional weight, so if you’re going back into the family archives, or your own personal history, you need to be ready to deal with whatever you might find.

Be physically ready to work on this project.  

Whether carrying stuff, lifting boxes, sorting and sifting, minding a flatbed scanner or simply opening an app and standing there snapping pictures of documents on a table there is always a physical component to scanning.  On top of which there is the additional post scanning process of cropping, image rotation, file adjustments, file naming and file saving that are often necessary and also needs to be considered when you’re planning for this process.

Scanning is a skill.

You don’t need to be an archivist to or extremely adept at digital imaging to scan your treasured photos or journals into digital form, but you would be best served to have a basic understanding of what a “good scan” is and the steps it takes to make one.  Scanning is absolutely something you can learn with relative ease but it does take a little practice to get it right.

Don’t just run out and buy an expensive scanner because you “have to have one.” 

Learn about the hardware and your options.  Scanners come in many sizes and price ranges. There are even scanning apps now that you can use to get a simple capture using your smartphone.  My advice would be don’t just go out and buy the most expensive scanner you can find.  If you only have 1 or 2 pictures you want to have scanned you can take them somewhere and have them do it for a few dollars.  If you have a lot of files to scan, have the money and want the flexibility of working on a personal project at home you can always look into a reasonably priced multi-function scanner/fax/copier/printer which in my experience typically does a more than adequate job for a non-professional.  If you don’t have access to, or can’t afford, a scanner you could also try a library, or create a makeshift copy stand and use a camera phone, point and shoot, or DSLR to copy your images that way.  There are pluses and minuses to each option but the fact is you don’t necessarily need to buy a scanner to copy images.

Learn a little bit about resolution.

Resolution is the way we measure image size and quality.  It is used in reference to both image dimensions and image density.  There are two ways we talk about resolution, first in terms of image size, or pixels per inch (PPI), and the second in terms of print resolution, or print quality,  and that is measured in dots per inch (DPI).  If you plan on scanning an image and printing out a duplicate version of it you typically need to start with a very high resolution image.  That means it needs to be scanned at a resolution that falls between 240 – 300 dpi.  Anything less and you will start to see image breakdown when you print the image.  You can also see softening of the image (it will look fuzzy in the print),or it will look pixelated or blocky which usually  happens when an image is scanned at too low a resolution.  If you have a scanner and have downloaded the software you need to make sure you are scanning to both the right size and right resolution for your desired goal.

How are you going to store it?

As I have said before, digital data takes up space.  So you need to plan for storage according to the size of your project.  I have seen a lot of multi-function scanner/fax/copier/printers that scan and can save directly to a USB/Flash drive.  These are amazing, and If you only have a few images you need scanned saving them to a USB should be fine.  But, if you have a 100, a 1000, or 10,000 you are probably going to need a better solution and probably an external hard drive (a small one).

All my stuff is scanned, now what? 

Crop, rotate, colour adjust, contrast, resize, retouch… Do you have to work on the images?  or are they all set to reprint and put into a photo album? All of these adjustments change the file size as well and some adjustments might be absolutely necessary in order to make the file usable. Typically the file gets larger the more work you do on it.  So you need to take this into account as well.

A few final thoughts.

The best way to attack a big scanning project is to make a plan.  If you have a lot of images decide on a goal, organize your images, and do a little bit every day.  Scanning can be boring, tedious and frustrating work especially if you’re starting out and want to do it right.  Your arms, back and shoulders will hurt and you will get really frustrated from time to time and end up swearing at your scanner.

If you are going to have a scanning party practice scanning first, so that when the food and booze flow freely the scanning goes as smoothly as possible.  Remember Just because you have a digital duplicate of something that doesn’t mean you have to (or should) throw everything you have scanned away.  Even if you scan everything in that box of cards and pictures, nothing can replace the last birthday card you got from your grandmother.   Something things, even when scanned just don’t compare to holding the original your hand.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jenny Watson says:

    I have been scanning some of my Gran’s old photos and she has written details on the back like who is in the photo, where it was taken and, the date. How do I digitally store this info with the digital copy. Is it a metadata thing? If I do it in one program will it transfer to others? I sure wish I read this before I started.


    1. Good questions!

      OK, so photographic metadata contains information about a specific image. There is some data that is written by the camera directly into the image when it is captured. These would be things like image dimensions, resolution, file name, file type, date created, etc… Then you have other data which you can add yourself such as copyright information, location and a small description. What you have to remember is that metadata is data about data, or in this case it is data about a specific digital image so once that information is added in there it is part of that file. (incidentally this applies to all digital files, not just photographs) Provided the description you are add is in the right place, it should be viewable by whatever means you choose to view it. So, if you add a description in iPhoto and then you export it and open it in Bridge it should still be there. I will say this, it’s likely that you will have to get into the habit of “exporting” your images out of a program rather than just dragging and dropping it into a new file. That way you can be sure you will keep the newly added data attached to the image file.

      Programs like iPhoto, Photos, Lightroom, Bridge all have a place to both enter and view “descriptions.” These are not big spaces and I wouldn’t add a paragraph(s) of text but you can definitely get in a line or so in there. For more consumer grade software to add a description you want click on the image, look for the “description” panel and add your information there. If you are using something like Bridge or Lightroom I found description under IPTC core panel, and its easy enough to click on the image and add your line of description.

      However, if you have an old photograph, and part of what makes it so special to you is the handwritten information on the back of it, what you may want to consider is taking a image of both the front and the back of the photograph. This way you will quite literally have the whole picture. Ideally you would shoot them consecutively starting at image one. If you have already started and find you need to go back and photograph the back of a few things, then you just want to make sure you name backs of the images so they stay in order. For example if you were to shoot the front and back of your first image, they would be named FileName0001_01.jpeg and FileName0001_02.jpeg. This means you will need to change the filename for back of the first image to match the filename for the front of the first image, and then add a 2 to the end so they are in order.

      It sounds like you have a great project on your hands. Figuring out how to bring all this information together is definitely a challenging thing to do. I’m sorry I didn’t write this sooner, but I’m glad you’re reading it now, and hopefully my answers will help you move forward and successfully complete your project. – J


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