DIY: Creating a Digital Archive

By The History Detectives Team
19 April 2010
Category: DIY Investigations

During the research phase of History Detectives investigations, we rely on one tool more than any other: the digital image. We email them to experts, we enlarge them for details, and we use them to avoid handling originals any more than we must. Digital images are also used by the hundreds to illustrate the stories we tell. (Next time you watch an episode, count how many archival photos fly across the screen.) Over the course of eight seasons we’ve compiled a hulking digital archive. It’s invaluable to us, and it can be equally useful to anybody with a collection of old family photos.

The right scanner for the job. Scanners essentially take a digital picture of a physical image. There are two types of image scanners available to consumers. Flatbed scanners are designed to scan prints and larger formats, and film scanners are built specifically to scan transparencies such as negatives and slides. Avoid film attachments included with flatbed scanners or devices that allow you to photograph your slides with a digital camera; both are inadequate for scanning film. Dedicated film scanners cost between $300 and $900, but are worth the investment if you value sharpness and clarity. It may be more economical to have small collections of negatives and slides scanned professionally. Photo labs generally charge between 50 cents and $10 per scan depending on the image quality that you desire.

Choose a flatbed scanner with a removable lid in order to accommodate larger prints. Before purchasing a flatbed, (which cost between $100 and $300) read reviews of both the scanner and its accompanying software. This is the application that will serve as your scanner controller. If you’re not happy with the included software, try a popular third-party scanning application like Vuescan. You can also download your scanner’s driver and use a graphics editing program such as Photoshop as your control panel.

Logging your images Before you begin scanning, assign a four-digit database number to each print, slide or negative, beginning with 1001 and working forward chronologically. Affix small archival stickers to the back of prints or write the number directly on the slide mount. Once you’ve done that, create a spreadsheet to serve as your image database. Title your columns by: Database #; Film type; Inscription; Date; Description and whatever other field you might want to include, such as location or date scanned.

The Scanning Most scanning software is fully customizable. Choose your resolution and image size based on your available space and your intended use. Resolution is measured in pixels-per-inch or PPI. A minimum resolution of 300 PPI is required to make quality prints, but images should be scanned at a higher resolution for archiving purposes. Scanning at a higher resolution allows you to enlarge your images. The drawback is that the increased resolution reveals all of the tiny imperfections on the print or film: every grain, scratch, spot and speck. Some scanning programs automatically remove these blemishes.

As you scan your images, name them by the four-digit database number corresponding to the originals, and save them in the same folder along with your database spreadsheet. Back up your digital archive to an external hard drive and DVD. Assuming you were diligent about filling in the database, you now have an easily navigable catalog of all of your images.

Your photos are now data.

But unlike your old photo albums, your new archive requires maintenance every four years or so. External hard drives become unreliable after about five years. DVDs might only last 20. Blu-rays and flash memory (a drive with no moving parts) will last considerably longer. No matter what media you choose to store your archive, you should be vigilant about periodically backing it up.


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