08 December 2012

Sorting Saturday - Let the Scanning Begin!

I've been involved with social media for a few years now, and especially in the last year I've been utilizing it as a great resource for product suggestions and reviews. I don't know about you, but I like being able to talk to friends and acquaintances about products and services before I purchase them. I feel like I get better information and am more informed when I decide to finally purchase something, use a service or go somewhere new. 

I'll preface the rest with this: I'm an Archivist. Regardless of whether your material is 20, 50, or 150 years old, the single tenet I work by is 'Do no harm.' My professional work revolves around protecting the information that documents hold and making that information accessible to researchers. That means protecting and preserving the documents themselves. However, with new technology, the push to scan historical material is getting stronger and stronger. What's more, as technology progresses, and as our backlog of material to scan gets bigger, we look for faster and easier ways to get the scanning done. 

There are a few common sense tips I'd like to share, because with the glut of information out there regarding hardware, I don't think there's enough information from the users end. More importantly, as an Archivist, I've had lots of experience scanning all types of material, from contemporary ads for a corporate client to a Civil War era letter regarding General Sheridan to a note from Bram Stoker. Awesome stuff, all of it. And all of it handled and scanned in different ways.  

My first words of advice: please, please, do NOT use a high-speed scanner for anything but contemporary material, preferably bond and/or copier paper from the last 30 years or so and most likely used, as I do, to print resource information or 'touch' copies of delicate/very old documents. The air pressure used to 'suck' the document across the platen is too much for many types of paper produced before the 1970s to withstand. Additionally, some inks, while seemingly permanent on paper, can be harmed or destroyed from this dragging process. It might appear that the document comes out in one piece, but the fibers have been stretched apart creating an atmosphere in which deterioration can increase and breaking the surface on which the ink holds. What's more, can you imagine the feeling you'd have as one of those documents jams in the machine with others behind it doing the same? Who hasn't had a copier jam up? High-speed scanners can and will do the same.

I had a client, a large service organization, that wanted to have some of its oldest and most valuable material scanned. It was a very large project totaling over 100 linear feet of material. We quoted them a price and time frame, both of which were well outside their desired parameters. So, they told us they were going to hire a commercial scanning company to scan the material. After negotiating the process between the company and our client, we spent two hours training the people in the scanning center how to handle the material properly. They assured our client that not a single piece would come to harm. Of course, you can't be 100% certain that either a machine or human, with minimal training, aren't going to make mistakes. In the end, 1% of the collection was damaged or destroyed. Out of 10,000 documents that's 100. Take 1% of your collection. Now throw it away. 

Seem a little extreme? Over-board? Perhaps, but my hope is that having read this, at least you have a clearer understanding of the 'why' behind my suggestion to use other scanning resources. Or, more importantly, if you take material to a vendor to be scanned, or send it to a group that will 'scan for free', you're equipped with this knowledge and can ask more informed questions (i.e., what equipment are you using to scan my material or do you have non-high speed equipment available for more delicate material?) as you decide whether or not to use that vendor. High-speed scanning can be a real asset  when used for appropriate materials; a good old flat-bed is best for more delicate material.

What's the options then? A good 'ole flat bed scanner works just fine. No fancy settings necessary; archival standards are original size at 300 dpi. No, you don't have to scan at 1200 dpi, unless you're planning on taking a picture of your great granddad to use as a cover for your garage door (I've seen other images used in this way!). I will recommend for some of those *tiny* photos produced in the 1940s and 1950s that you scan at the same 300 dpi, but increase the output size to something bigger. This will provide a file that is more readily usable for copying. Same for any documents that are smaller or that have small writing. 

Photo of Family Collection courtesy Laura C. Lorenzana 2012

And, the next best step is using something that either allows you not to handle the document or minimizes such handling. Because handling historical material increases its chances of being damaged, right? There are some small portable scanners on the market that work just fine for this. However, I've come to really appreciate my smartphone's Camscanner app. No document handling necessary at all, other than opening a folder to the document you need, or a book to a page you're interested in capturing. With a click of a button, you capture the image, it's converted to a PDF file and you can either store it on your phone or upload it to a wide variety of cloud applications like Dropbox, EverNote, OneNote, or email it, tweet it, post it on Facebook...you get the idea. I love this because it's faster and I don't have to handle the material. I used this method with a collection recently and was very pleased with the results. (PSA: One word. Copyright. Know it. Use it.)

Oh, and as Archivists we don't mess with the original scan. In other words, when I scan material, whatever condition it's in is what I want to capture. Because if I go back 10 years from now and compare the original document and the scan and the original looks different, I may have preservation issues. 

If the document in its current condition isn't as legible as I'd like, or there's issues in a photo that I'd like to address, I make a copy of the digital file to fix. I file my 're-touched' material in a separate location from my digital archival scans. Easy.

So, scan your material. It's important. I suggest using consistent filing systems, or the same filing systems, for both paper and digital files. Nothing fancy required to get this started other than a scanner and the desire to share your genealogical material with other researchers. No fancy settings required: just remember 300 dpi at original size. 

Hope this helped a bit. Please let me know if you have questions or concerns about this information; that way I'll know if what I'm passing on to you is of interest and value. Have a great Saturday!!


  1. Love your article, Laura. You answered my question as to how scanning damages a document.

  2. Ralph, yay! An important aspect of being a family historian/genealogist: we want our material to last and we want to share what we have with others. Scanning is the best way to do that, but we have to be prudent in how we manage that process. I have, in the course of handling my own family materials, made mistakes that cost me information (i.e., harmed the material). My goal is to make sure I can pass on what I learned, through those hard lessons, so someone else doesn't have to feel the way I felt when it happened.

    I appreciate that you took the time to read, and comment! Happy scanning...

  3. Laura, Thank you for posting this article. I'm starting to do something about all the genealogy material I have gathered. I can see I need to make scanning a top priority.

    1. Grant, thank you so much for stopping by to read and comment. It's the biggest challenge we have; getting ourselves organized. We always say we'll do it later, right? I suggest to those who ask that they start with the most fragile material they have (if any) and get it scanned and put away as quickly as possible. From there, it's a matter of eating the elephant a bite at a time. ;-)

      I know there's a group doing scanning on Sundays, as long as you're not a professional genealogist. If you haven't heard about it, I post a link...they work on-line for just an hour on Sunday, which I think is a great way to tackle getting your scanning started.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  4. Thanks Laura, good to know we are doing it right - love flat-bed scanners. I also have a Flip-pal portable scanner, and my current project is scanning my recently purchased UK certificates with it as they are too long for the flatbed, and it does a good job of stitching the watermarks on them. Is it OK to use it for older, only one copy of, photos? Regards, Sue

    1. Those old flat-beds have come a long way, haven't they?! Thanks for stopping by and commenting; you asked a great question.

      I avoided the appearance of 'promoting' anything, but I have seen and had the opportunity to try a Flip-pal. I liked the idea and portability and yes it's particularly good for odd sized things like those pesky, too-long UK certs!

      I'd be inclined to say that yes, you can use it to get the scans of your old photos, though I still prefer a digital camera or smartphone because that doesn't utilize a flash of light and you don't really have to handle the photos (which should always be done with gloves, as an aside). But, of course, the portability makes it especially attractive for bringing along on those holiday trips to be with family, so if that works, it's a good thing.

      Thanks again for your comment and question!

    2. Would you believe I'd never thought of using the digital camera to re-photograph the old photos - duh. Thanks again.

    3. As I said, I just want people to learn from my experience...a more direct route. So, I do believe it, because I 'accidentally' figured out it worked when the scanner a client had died and I had to get an image done quickly. I remember thinking that at least I'd have a decent image. It actually came out better!

  5. Laura, thank you for this wise advice. Yes, I can just imagine getting a precious document stuck when "rolled through" a photocopy machine. NONONONONO!

    I've been using Flip-Pal, which I think is easy on old photos, and I have often set it at 600 dpi for old photos that I wish were just a touch clearer. When I get to the thousands of family photos I've stored -- from the 1960s forward -- I was also thinking of using 600 dpi so that the family members would have an especially clear photo to enjoy in my digitally stored albums (spent yesterday learning to transfer photos from MacBookPro thru iTunes to IPhoto on iPad Mini and then to albums in PhotoManagerPro on IPad Mini; my head is still reeling).

    Is there a downside to scanning photos at 600dpi? Or is that OK?

    Thanks for this substantial post!

    1. Apologies for the late response, Mariann. The difference between 300 dpi and 600 dpi is really only evident if you attempt to blow up the image (i.e., you start with a 3" x 5" but want a print that is 24" x 40"). That is why the Archival Standard is set at 300 dpi.

      The only potential downside to scanning at 600 dpi is that for some scanners it takes longer and the file size is four times (4x) larger. So, if the photo you scan at 300 dpi is 2.5MB, at 600 dpi the file will be 10MB. Otherwise, if your preference is 600 dpi...go for it! You've more than covered the minimum standard.

  6. Hi Laura, thanks for the tips on scanning. I'm going to check out the camscanner app for my Android smartphone. By the way, I found you from a link on the blog for hcgsohio.blogspot.com. Kathy Reed suggested we all visit our Members' blogs. :)

  7. Hi, Jenny! Thanks so much for taking the time to read & comment, and nice to meet an HCGS member on-line! I really love camscanner because it's easy to use but also has more advanced features for when you get the hang of using it. :-)

  8. Hi, Jenny! Thanks so much for taking the time to read & comment, and nice to meet an HCGS member on-line! I really love camscanner because it's easy to use but also has more advanced features for when you get the hang of using it. :-)


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