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 for before you scan


To Do List Before You Scan


    • Gather items

      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.


Gather memorabilia to digitize



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.put photos in proper order for Autofeed Photo scanner

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).  Scrapbook page with multiple items to scan



Pamphlet on 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)

If there is dust/debris on your photo you’ll blow it off with the air-puffer and if necessary, add some Isopropyl Alcohol to the lint-free cloth (not the photo) and gently dab/wipe the photo to remove debris.

He also recommends buying lint-free gloves from a photography store. I’d use those gloves for all memorabilia types, if not to protect the materials, to protect your hands from the moisture they’ll pull from your hands.

Finally, have your digital filenames planned in advance and include them with each sorted stack you’ve prepped for scanning.



Woohoo! You’re finally ready to scan! If you haven’t sorted by Name, Type, Size, Device, and Prepped your material, you shouldn’t be here. Seriously, Garbage in, Garbage out. A digital mess is just as ugly as a physical mess and may be harder to clean up. Unless there’s an urgent deadline for a digital end-product, don’t scan till you’ve gone through the steps to successful scanning.

What type of scanner to use and where do I find one? Amazon is a great place to search for scanning equipment and read reviews/compare specs. Before you “Add to Your Cart” and marry yourself to a machine, be sure to visit a library or society that has scanners you can use and then try each one. I’m constantly weighing the cost and inconvenience of travel against the cost and convenience of owning my own equipment. So far, traveling and lugging my boxes to a library where I can use high-quality machines has won out.

I’ll share my specific, step-by-step scanning tips in future blogs but congrats if you’re at this point and even heartier congratulations if you’re NOT at this point, but you ARE taking the time to organize your digital solution.

In my experience, the bulk of your time should be spent on the first five steps, so there’s definitely something you can be doing now to prepare for a scanning project, that does not involve any sort of electronic device.

Good luck in all your family history projects. And if you’re not tackling a scanning project over the holidays, remember at family gatherings to pass the photos and record the memories. 

4 responses to “To Do List for BEFORE you Scan”

    1. Tina,

      Flatbed scanners are great when they’re the right tool for the project or if they’re the only scanner you have access to, but if you have access to other types of scanners, many digitizing jobs can be done more efficiently by opting for a different scanner.

      An auto-feed photo scanner is my preferred option for regular size photos because it will scan the front (and back) in large batches, quickly.

      A book scanner is a better option for scrapbooks you don’t want to damage by pressing the binding open too hard on a flatbed scanner.

      An auto-feed paper scanner is a faster option for letters and envelopes (and for diaries or books if you’re willing to destroy/cut off the binding and feed the pages through the auto-feed paper scanner).

      If you call around and find places that have other types of scanners, it can speed up a digitizing project to use different scanners for different memorabilia. But a flatbed scanner is an all-around, great tool that can be used for most digitizing projects and is sometimes the only scanner we have accessible.

      Hope that clarifies my post.

      Best with your projects!


  1. I am 78 have piles of photos etc. do you have a post that explains what to do with photos after I scan them? I would like to make book of some kind but am not creative (I am a great copier though) so want something simple but attractive. How do I find the photos after I scan them? I am putting them in categories and then what? Sorry I am so dense but this is a great desire of mine to finish.

    1. Gloria,

      I don’t currently have a post on processes to put in place for finding photos after scanning them. I selectively use mine in Animoto slideshows. Here is a link to different book publishing companies, some of which focus on photos, others on stories.

      I would recommend this post from The Photo Managers (formerly the Association of Personal Photo Organizers) with links to follow depending on your photo goals. Also, you might want to join Photo Organizing Fun on Facebook or visit OrganizingPhotos.net by Caroline Guntur. You can also follow The Organized Genealogist on Facebook and learn what others are doing with their scanned photos. Those sites will all address best processes to set up to help you find scanned photos in your digital collections and also give you ideas for how others are using their scanned photos.

      Best with your photo organizing goals!


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