Arranging your family papers, part 3

[Editor's note: This series began here and continued here.]

The last topic that I originally wanted to discuss in my article on organizing and preserving your family papers was digitization. For someone who wants to digitize their material there are a few things that you can do to have archival quality digital images.

The first of thing to do is make sure that you have the necessary equipment for a digitization project. This would likely involve a flatbed scanner (your printer may have one) or a digital camera to photograph larger items. The disadvantage of using a camera is that if the item is large, you may not obtain a focused image and if you try to take the photograph by hand you may end up with a blurry picture. If you are photographing material, a tripod will help stabilize the camera.

There are also portable scanners, which allow the user to take scans of sections of an item and then use a program to put all the individual scans together to form an image of the entire document. I have found that the drawback of using one is the amount of time that it takes to scan an image. For the model that we have in Research Services it can take 20 scans to cover an entire newspaper page, however; the benefit of having the entire image in focus outweighs the time required.

While an image that is saved as a tiff will take up more space on your hard drive, the digital image will maintain the same quality over time.

When it comes to capturing the image, there are some things to keep in mind. The first is that the image should be in full color to give an accurate representation of what the item looks like. If you are using a scanner to capture the image, you should place a different colored piece of paper, such as black or grey, behind it to show the edges of the item.

The other things to do while digitizing is to make sure that you are capturing the image with a resolution of at least 300 DPI and saving the image as a tiff. While an image that is saved as a tiff will take up more space on your hard drive, the digital image will maintain the same quality over time. Without getting into the technical details, a .jpg file uses lossy compression, which removes information about the image causing its quality to degrade over time. If you are going to share the images with people, through email or on a website, you can use the master tiff files to create smaller files that you can share more easily.

Once you have your images, you need to develop a naming structure for them. This can be as simple as naming the item “Letter_JohnSmith_to_MaryJane_4_20_1945_p1.” In my example, all the items will sort by format first, and in the case of the letters, then the author of the letter, the recipient, the date, and then by page number. Your file names should provide enough information for you to identify what it is without having to open the image to look at it.

Jason Amos

About Jason Amos

Jason received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and his Master of Science from Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, focusing in archival management. He also received a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. Jason began at NEHGS as a volunteer and then as an intern with the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections before moving into Research Services. Jason enjoys writing narrative reports and searching for every piece of information relating to an ancestor that helps reveal what their life was like.View all posts by Jason Amos