If you’re planning to digitize photos or family history items anytime soon, there are plenty of things you can do now to get ready for your scanning project. Here’s a Scanning To Do List you can start plugging away at now to make your digital family history goals achievable. Each of these steps takes time and will simplify the final scanning phase.
To Do List Before You Scan
Think about every place you may have stored photos, letters, trinkets, etc. Set aside one place where you can pile all these items.
If you’re going to have to clean up this area daily, you should tackle the project in smaller doses, i.e., scrapbooks only; loose photos only; trinkets only; letters only, etc.
Decide your final goal for the items
Friends introduced me to Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-To-Be-Done Theory which I try to apply to my family history work. What job are you trying to accomplish? What product or service should you “hire” for the job?
Genealogists tend to be like archivists, they save everything. Is this your plan? (It’s not mine.) Are you going to digitize everything? Are you only digitizing part of the collection? Do you want archival quality scans for posterity or low-quality scans for something more disposable?
My plan is to digitize the materials I care about and then give the physical memorabilia to family members, so I want high-quality scans. I’m still weighing whether I’ll digitize everything, but I’m moving towards not.
Sort, Sort, Sort the items
This is where you’ll spend most of your time. You’ll sort multiple times, in multiple ways, to organize physical items the way you want the digital files to come out.
Prep the items
You’ll prep the materials by cleaning them and you’ll prep them by placing them in whatever order a scanning device dictates. And if you’re not going to immediately digitize what you’re prepping, be sure to come up with a plan to secure the items in their proper order so items don’t shift around (keep envelopes with the correct letter, etc). Decide what filename you’ll use for each stack of ordered items.
Research scanning devices
Try to find the proper tool for the job. (A flatbed scanner is NOT the right tool for every job.) Call every local library, nearby school library, historical society, etc and find out what equipment they have and what it costs to use the equipment. Is it free? Is it free to society members? Can you rent the equipment and use it at your own home? You may prefer to spend $30 to join a society and use their equipment for a year versus paying $10 an hour for a lengthy project. Is it worth purchasing some scanning equipment? I’ve definitely weighed that option.
Gather everything in one place. In popular decluttering literature, this is the Konmari method of decluttering. If you’re planning to tackle photos, you bring all the photos to one area/pile. I want to digitize ancestral scrapbooks, letters, photos, you name it, so I devoted one room in my home to be a temporary staging area and brought every item of family history, for my side of the family, into that room.
You’ll probably need to sort items multiple times, to bring order to the chaos. Here are the sorts I used.
1. Sort the pile by Surname or Family member. I now have stacks for each parent, grandparent, and then some great-grandparents and other relatives.
If you’re not extremely familiar with what your ancestor looked like at different ages, it’s essential to keep all their photos and belongings together, separated from other ancestors’ memorabilia.
Later, you may decide to scan all photos of a certain size at the same time, but they need to be sorted by person or surname so they’ll always be identifiable.
2. Sort by Item Type
Separating objects by type protects more delicate objects from damage and helps you assess the jobs to be done. I had six types:
Scrapbooks & Diaries
Family History Notes, Pedigrees, etc.
3. Sort by Item Size or Content
You may need different scanner settings based on the size of a photo or whether a paper is single-sided or double-sided. Your scanning process will be faster if you’re able to set the scanner settings for one size/type and scan everything for that scanner setting first, then change scanner settings for the next job. You don’t want to switch between single-sided and double-sided mid-batch. Or do double-sided scans when you know the back side of a photo or document is blank.
You also may find the scanner does a better job feeding the photos through if you have the same size photos going through in one batch. Sort smaller 2″x 3″ photos and 5″ x 7″ photos into different piles.
I found a great website, HowToScan.ca, by a professional photographer, and it includes free ebook downloads. He has very specific scanning advice for photos and slides and it’s worth downloading his book for details. He’s sent me follow up emails with links for more ebooks that are free to download, and while I’ve only looked at one of them, his is a mailing list I’m happy to be a part of.
4. Sort by Digitizing Device
Autofeed Paper Scanner – The letters and envelopes I can run through a paper scanner. Most of the random handwritten notes and pedigrees can also be fed through this type of scanner. This job is fast and efficient.
Slide Scanner – This is a very job-specific scanner, intended for 35mm, 75mm, etc slides.
Camera/Scanning machine – The scrapbooks, diaries, and some objects will need a specialized camera/scanning machine so I can take pictures of each page/item. I may use a flatbed scanner for the diaries if it’s not destructive, but the scrapbooks have three-dimensional objects in them and can’t be squashed against a screen. This job is slow and tedious.
Flatbed Scanner – The flatbed scanner is for larger photos/papers or mounted photos. This job is slow and tedious.
Auto-feed Photo Scanner – The auto-feed scanner is for smaller photos and postcards. This job is fast and efficient.
Prep the Material for Scanning. Think “Garbage in, Garbage out.”
You need to think about the digitizing device you’ll be using and possibly spend more time preparing the material to be digitized vs. the time spent actually digitizing.
With letters, take the extra time to stack the letters (and their associated envelope) in the order you want the digital files to be created. Group all of one family member’s letters together, or group them as letter & response letter, or whatever your preference.
With photos that go through a feed scanner, you need to know how the machine works.
For the auto-feed photo machines I’ve used, the machine pulls photos from the back of the stack, in other words, the first photo that will be scanned is the one laying flat against the machine. I can stack a number of photos at one time but they need to be stacked first to last, from back to front, with the photo facing outward (towards you) and upside down. That’s the order and direction the machine will pull the photos through.
Flatbed scanners and Camera/Book scanners are slower processes. Flatbed scanners will usually scan right to left, top to bottom. So if you’re planning to lay multiple photos on the bed at one time (scanners will recognize the separate photos), stack your photos in the order you intend to lay them down on the flatbed.
If you’re scanning a scrapbook with multiple items on each page, plan to scan the entire scrapbook in addition to each page & its parts. In the photo below, I’m planning to use a camera/book scanner to digitize this scrapbook and I’ll take scans of the entire album as it’s laid out as a book, then I’ll take scans of individual pages & scans of individual items on each page (see the second photo of the songbook that is on this scrapbook page).
Be prepared to clean the materials and machines before you scan. I highly recommend buying a can of compressed air you’ll have on-hand to clean the scanner before, during, and after your scans. It’s amazing how dirty the scanners get. By the end of a big scanning job, you may start seeing dust on your digitized scans. And of course, you’ll want to leave the scanner clean for the next person.
As far as cleaning photos, I’m following the advice of Konrad at HowToScan.ca. If you sign up for his free ebook he’ll also send you “How to Double Your Productivity and Finish Your Scanning Twice as Fast.” In this second e-book he shares these tips:
Get an air-puffer (not compressed air because it can spray some moisture that will help debris stick to the photo);
lint-free cloth, and
Isopropyl Alcohol (at least 98% alcohol)