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Family History Tech Blog

The purpose of this blog is as an ongoing discussion about how technology can further the work of family history. Can technology be used to help family history work move forward?  What tools are available to archive and share the resources and findings of family historians?  Can we use technology to increase research and cultural awareness of our ancestral roots?  The answers to these questions and others will be found on this blog.

All blog posts include a pdf version for you to download and share.

Family History Digital Archiving

October 25, 2013

So how do you archive the photographs and other documents that might be uncovered during family history work? The advances in technology provide family historians with the opportunity to archive and share important documents, thereby helping to preserve the originals. Creating a digital copy of these documents preserves these important pieces of your family history for future generations. Let me share a personal experience to lead into this topic.

Until a few years ago I had never actually seen a picture of my maternal great-grandfather. My grandma had all of the pictures stored and was working on the history of that side of the family, but the information was not shared except in bits and pieces. She asked me to help create a biographical sketch of her father-in-law which would include photos, most of which the family had never seen. I jumped at the chance to connect with an individual I knew very little about. Through the creation of the biographical sketch, I also took the time to restore and archive the photos in digital format. When I returned the finished product to my grandma, I also included all of the archived photos on a CD and multiple copies of the CD to share with the rest of the family. Digital archiving allows a family historian to easily share photos with family increasing the awareness of ancestral roots and connection through the visual experience of seeing ancestors in photographs.


Archiving photographs is an easy process if you have the proper equipment and understand some of the technical terms associated with the process. Let's go through them and you can see that this is not rocket science! The only special equipment needed is a scanner. A lot of the home printers sold in stores now are "all-in-ones" which include scanning, copying, and printing capabilities. You don't need a separate scanner if your all-in-one can scan at the proper resolution.

When archiving photos, the most important concept for you to understand is resolution. The resolution number provides you with a measurement of the quality of the image after scanning. Have you ever tried to download an image off of the internet for your presentation or document only to have it turn out low quality? Images found on the internet are low resolution so that they will load fast when you click on a website. Generally internet images are set at 72 or 96 dpi resolution. Dpi is a key term here. Dpi stands for "dots per inch." If you have an image that is 1 inch by 1 inch at 72 dpi there are 72 dots of color used to create the image you see. The image will load fast, but it will be fairly low quality. To archive family history photos, 72 dpi is extremely low. My recommendation is to archive photos at 800 dpi or higher. 800 dpi is almost 10 times higher in quality than a standard internet image. This will create a good quality image for archiving.

When looking at the resolution of a scanner, the manufacturer will generally have two numbers listed usually like this: 6000 x 1200 dpi. Don't be taken in by the larger number, always look at the lower of the two numbers, because that is the better indicator of the resolution quality for archiving your photos. Searching on Amazon.com for this post I found that most of the all-in-one scanners were capable of scanning up to 1200 dpi which is great for family history archiving and they were less than $100. Some of the all-in-one scanners don't allow you to adjust the dpi. I have one at home (not the scanner I use for archiving) that only gives me two options: "document" or "photo." If this is the extent of your choice, choose "photo" because it will be the higher resolution of the two.

Here are a couple of tips for scanning your photo:

1. Clean the scanner glass before you begin. Because it is glass, fingerprints are common. However, don't use a standard glass cleaner on the surface. Not only could this leave streaks which will be scanned into your photos, but the residue of the chemical cleaner might cause damage to the photo itself. Use a soft, lint free cleaning cloth dedicated for this purpose. This will help clear the dust without streaking. If the glass does have a few smudges, use a water moistened soft cloth to clean off the smudge marks and fingerprints. Avoid using chemicals to protect your photos.

2. Some scanning software allows you some control of the scanning process. If you have the option to change any of the settings, set your resolution for 800 dpi and turn off any automatic adjustment settings. Some scanners have these settings which will alter the color or the brightness/contrast of your photos according to some predetermined formula. For archiving photos, you want your digital photo to look as much like the original as possible.

File Formats

One more topic to discuss is what file format to use. This is a common question with so many different file formats to choose from (jpeg, gif, png, pdf, bitmap, tiff, etc.). Depending on your scanner this might not be a question. Many of the all-in-one scanners save files as JPEG, which is a universal file format meaning that any computer or device can open this type of file. When I archived the files for my grandma's project, I saved the restored pictures as JPEGs for the ease of sharing them with the rest of the family. There is a downside to the JPEG file format. A photo saved as a standard JPEG does lose some quality due to the compression used to save an image in this format. If you have the option of saving as a JPEG2000 file, then you will not lose quality with compression. Many archivists use either the JPEG200o or the TIFF file format. Even with the compression issue, I think that JPEG is the best format for storing and sharing your family history photos because it is so universal for sharing.


Deciding where and how to store your scanned photos brings up several questions. Let's look at some different options.

CD  - Saving your family history photos and documents on a compact disc provides several advantages over other media. CD's make it very easy to share without adding more files to your computer. It is all contained in one place. You can also label for easy storage and retrieval. The first disadvantage is the possibility of the disc degrading over time. CD's are not manufactured to last forever, 100 years is the number I heard once. Another disadvantage is with one scratch the data is lost. One last disadvantage is that you have to hope that 10 years down the line future computers will still be able to read the CD (think 8 track).

Hard Drive or USB drive - Storing your archived documents on an external hard drive or a USB drive also offers several advantages. Having the files independent of your computer will protect them if something happens to your computer's internal hard drive. The drives are still portable and could be saved in a safe place or easily transported for sharing. Sharing can also be done by sending the files through email or a cloud service. Disadvantages include the possibility of the device failing or getting a virus.

Cloud Storage - There are a number of storage possibilities in the cloud (space on servers located around the internet). The cloud offers the protection of not being on your computer and ease of sharing. Most cloud services allow you to invite guests into your space to view or download documents.

My recommendation for storage options is to use multiple storage options. When companies store their important data, it is not usually stored in just one place. I recommend picking two of the options. I store my archived photos on CD and on an external hard drive. I am exploring some different cloud options right now to see if one works for me but the point is have at least two copies of the archived photos stored somewhere.

These are priceless family and historical documents, they deserve to be carefully archived and stored for future generations to enjoy!

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