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.