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.

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