Digital Archiving

Blanche Gregg Koutsky’s Chil­dren (My First Cousins Twice Removed)

How to Make and Store Dig­i­tal Back­ups of Your Audio, Video, and Photography

As a geneal­o­gist and the family’s his­to­rian, you have prob­a­bly gath­ered, received, and in every way imag­in­able sim­ply ended up with boxes of video­tapes and audio­cas­settes. Almost cer­tainly you have even more pho­tographs. In addi­tion to archiv­ing and pre­serv­ing these records, you want to make them avail­able to your fam­ily and to other researchers.

In any archiv­ing process, it is impor­tant to deter­mine what is of value, what should be pre­served, and what should be rel­e­gated to the recy­cling bin. Once you have whit­tled the piles down to the genealog­i­cally and his­tor­i­cally inter­est­ing pho­tographs, film and video, and audio record­ings, you might ask your­self: “Now what?” This arti­cle will attempt to answer that ques­tion for the dig­i­tal archiv­ing of audio, video, and photography.

Since you want to both pre­serve this mate­r­ial and make it avail­able to fam­ily and other researchers, the best approach is to repro­duce it in a com­puter for­mat — to dig­i­tize it. You can do this at home, as a do-it-yourself project, or you can have some­one else per­form it as a ser­vice for you.

Dig­i­tal Archiving

First off , it is impor­tant to under­stand that dig­i­tal or elec­tronic archiv­ing is not about destroy­ing the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment. If the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment is of value, you want to pre­serve it. Your elec­tronic copy will pro­vide quick access to the doc­u­ment, with­out hav­ing to touch the orig­i­nal, as well as pro­vid­ing a backup should some­thing hap­pen to the orig­i­nal. Sec­ondly, you want to pre­serve the elec­tronic ver­sion itself by mak­ing back­ups of it, both locally and remotely.

To per­form dig­i­tal archiv­ing, no mat­ter what the orig­i­nal media:
  1. Gather the mate­ri­als you want to archive. You will want to do a pre­lim­i­nary assess­ment. Do you have two or twenty video­tapes of the grand­kids? Do you have one or sev­enty audio­cas­settes of your brother’s thes­pian exploits? Do you have fifty or five hun­dred pho­tographs of your ances­tors? The scale of the task fig­ures into your deci­sion whether to do the archiv­ing your­self or hire someone.
  2. Assess the mate­ri­als for fragility, rar­ity, and abil­ity to be dig­i­tized. Most pho­tographs, even frag­ile ones, can eas­ily be scanned on a flatbed scan­ner (where you lay the doc­u­ment flat for imag­ing). But you never want to put a pho­to­graph through a sheet-feed scan­ner. Sim­i­lar con­sid­er­a­tions apply for the fragility of audio and video record­ings. As you do this dig­i­tal archiv­ing work, you should limit any risk where what you are doing may dam­age or destroy the original.
  3. Decide whether you should do it your­self or con­tract some­one else to do it. Con­sider whether you have the time, skills, and tools to do the job yourself.
  4. Get started and fol­low through to the end of your project. It will be help­ful if you break larger projects into smaller sub-projects, so you can see progress and expe­ri­ence some of the thrill of com­plet­ing each step.
  5. Set up stor­age and both local and remote backup sys­tems for the dig­i­tal archives. (I will dis­cuss local and remote backup in a later article.)


If you have audio record­ings to pre­serve, they might be on any num­ber of media no longer in use: LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, and so on. You prob­a­bly have cas­sette tapes as well; it is becom­ing more dif­fi­cult to find play­ers for them, as CDs and MP3 play­ers have sup­planted cas­settes in the mar­ket­place. In addi­tion, tapes of any kind can degrade, stretch, or get caught in the machine.

If you decide to con­vert your audio your­self, you will need a native player for your media, such as a turntable or a cas­sette deck, and a way to con­nect that to your com­puter. Macs and PCs often have audio input jacks, but if yours does not, you can use Griffin’s iMic for the Mac <>, and sim­i­lar prod­ucts for the PC, to con­nect your ana­log audio source to your computer.
You will also need soft­ware to turn the audio into dig­i­tal files. The free soft­ware prod­uct Audac­ity <> con­verts ana­log audio to dig­i­tal. Sony’s Sound Forge prod­ucts <www.sonycreativesoft> (alas, not free!) do this as well. Finally, a com­plete sys­tem for con­vert­ing LPs and 78s (includ­ing a turntable with built-in pre­am­pli­fier, soft­ware, and con­nec­tors for your com­puter) is avail­able from DAK <>, a well-known ven­dor for elec­tronic hobbyists.
If you do not want to go through the work involved in set­ting your­self up for con­ver­sion of ana­log audio to dig­i­tal files, or you don’t want to buy equip­ment you may use only once, you may look into hir­ing a com­pany to do the work. One of the best known cas­sette and LP dig­i­ti­za­tion out­fits is Reclaim Media <>, 866−669− 6496. On its Web site, the com­pany claims that it has dig­i­tized 227,351 cas­settes and LPs since 2002. The Cana­dian com­pany Rip­styles <>, 866−391−8447 in the U.S., (866−694−5302 in Canada) pri­mar­ily pro­vides a CD “rip­ping” ser­vice to take audio on a CD that you own to a dig­i­tal file (in any of several
for­mats) that can be deliv­ered on a CD, a hard disk, or an iPod. In addi­tion to CD con­ver­sion, it also con­verts audio­cas­sette tapes and LPs. The com­pany has a part­ner­ship with BestBuy’s Geek Squad (which does not, unfor­tu­nately, allow you to drop off your media at your local BestBuy).

Pho­tog­ra­phy and Video

Aside from doc­u­ments, the items that geneal­o­gists have in most abun­dance and most want to share with their fam­ily and other researchers are pho­tographs. Many of us have scanned images over the years in var­i­ous res­o­lu­tions and for­mats. If you are scan­ning for archival pur­poses, this means that at some point you might want to print the pho­tos out. You should not scan sim­ply for Web shar­ing, as you will only have to scan again if you want to get a good print of the image. You should scan your images at the high­est res­o­lu­tion pos­si­ble. Res­o­lu­tion is mea­sured in dots-per-inch; 600 DPI should be your min­i­mum. Also, you should not save in JPG for­mat. JPG uses a “lossy” form of com­pres­sion, that is, one that loses some of the data as it tries to con­trol file size. It is much more
prefer­able to go with TIF, PNG, or GIF. These for­mats com­press the image file in ways that do not sac­ri­fice image qual­ity. PNG is the newest of these for­mats, and can be dis­played directly on the Web, as can JPG and GIF. How­ever, the res­o­lu­tion you will be scan­ning at will be too high for the Web, so you will need to also make low-resolution ver­sions. I rec­om­mend scan­ning to a high-resolution TIF and then using an image man­age­ment tool such as Google’s Picasa <> or Apple’s iPhoto or Aper­ture to cre­ate lower res­o­lu­tion ver­sions for Web sharing.
Addi­tion­ally, you will want to look at image cor­rec­tion. While you are scan­ning, there are a num­ber of ways to improve the image. Color casts or fad­ing from print degra­da­tion can be adjusted and you can touch up the image to remove creases or tears in the pho­to­graph from your scan. If you are not a pho­tog­ra­phy or dig­i­tal imag­ing pro­fes­sional, you might want to hire out this task.
There are sev­eral ser­vices that will take your pho­to­graphic images, scan them, and return the orig­i­nals along with high-resolution JPG or TIFF files. Among the best known are Foto­Bridge <>, Scan­Cafe <>, and DigMyP­ics <>. The way these ser­vices work is that you order ser­vices from the Web site, then send in your media. Some require a par­tial pay­ment in advance, but they seem to all allow you to reject any items that you do not want, and receive credit for them. Foto­bridge and Scan­Cafe focus on dig­i­ti­za­tion of printed pho­tographs, slides, and neg­a­tives. DigMyP­ics works with these for­mats, but also trans­fers VHS and 8mm film to dig­i­tal for­mats, pro­vid­ing either an editable AVI file or a DVD of the video or film con­ver­sions, or both. Another com­pany that con­verts VHS and 8mm film to dig­i­tal for­mats is iMem­o­ries <>. It does not seem to pro­vide an AVI option, but does deliver a DVD you can watch on your TV.

Putting It All together

One draw­back with most of the ser­vices I have men­tioned is that they rely on ship­ping your rare items to have them con­verted to dig­i­tal for­mats. (Scan­Cafe even takes the pho­tographs you send to them in San Fran­cisco, and re-ships them to India and back.) While there is some risk in this, it’s not as if your archives are com­pletely safe in your house. Even under your pro­tec­tion, they may be attacked by pests or sim­ply degrade and decay while you con­sider if this is the right thing to do. How­ever, if the ship­ping con­cerns you, you might look for local com­pa­nies that pro­vide sim­i­lar ser­vices, or you might make ana­log copies of your trea­sures (for exam­ple, a copy of the tape of your father’s speech), or your own best attempt at image scans, prior to send­ing your pho­tographs or tapes off to be digitized.
Whether you use a local or a remote ven­dor to cre­ate a dig­i­tal archive copy of your pho­tographs, audio, and video, or do it your­self, please do it. Many of the items in these media are sim­ply not very sta­ble, and the longer you wait, the more likely it is that you will lose some or all of the value of the heir­loom. Dig­i­tiz­ing these doc­u­ments can pro­vide you with a backup copy and the abil­ity to share them as widely as you want.

This arti­cle, which orig­i­nally appeared in a slightly dif­fer­ent form in the National Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety’s NGS Mag­a­zine, is repub­lished here by permission.

Jones, Jor­dan. “Dig­i­tal archiving:How to make and store dig­i­tal back­ups of your audio, video, and pho­tog­ra­phy” NGS Mag­a­zine, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October-December 2009), 59–61.

Leave a Comment