QTIP: How to Start Scanning Your Family Photos
Posted on April 23rd, 2019
Scanning all your family photos is a mission. As a digital Indy, your mission is to rescue irreplaceable family artifacts from the dumpster or shredder, and then record their digital images for future generations.
For your efforts you’ll be remembered as the fearless and farsighted hero who saved your family’s history.
Cool scanning gear and a fedora will be important, but without a good plan your quest can become a slog. Consider these planning tips:
Go big. List everything you might want to scan. Yes, everything. Of course, family portraits, paintings, drawings, scrapbooks, yearbooks, photo albums, slides and prints, letters, diplomas, citations and the like are a must. Don’t forget the Polaroids and Super 8s.
Consider digitizing 3D items like your dad’s military uniform, your mom’s silver tea service, and perhaps her military uniform too. Classic hickory skis, furniture, jewelry, watches, accessories, badges, buttons and other items that may not fit through a scanner but have or had meaning for you should be on your list. You may not particularly like some items but they may hold meaning for friends and family, present and future.
A complete list of items to scan and photograph will help map the workflow of your scanning-cum-family archive expedition. A complete list may also relieve some angst over items that you decide not to archive.
Preserve context. As you hold an item in your hand you may know its who, when, where, what and why significance. Future viewers may not. Was the year 1937 or 1948? How will future viewers know?
Scan or simply take cell phone pictures of each container, box, envelope, printed label, date stamp, hand written note and any available clues to the context of related items. Keep the digital image and context files matched together. Better yet, combine the matched files into a single image. Heeding this tip will reap big rewards.
Think downstream. Before you buy your new scanning gear, think about where all the original molecular stuff you’ll process will actually go after being uploaded as electrons. Back into the attic? Not likely.
Having no downstream plan for items you have scanned — and that then pile high around you — will doom your project.
What would Indy do? Make another list. This one of family, friends, libraries, schools, clubs, museums, historical societies that may take items, bundles, and boxes off your hands after you have scanned them. Imagine your relief as a distant relative rolls out of your driveway with a car-load of musty scrapbooks that also have meaning for her. As you wave goodbye, don’t spill it that she could have simply downloaded your digital copies.
Be relentless. Once you have chosen what to scan, scan it all. Don’t be deterred by the drudgery, inner voices saying "I’m so done with this" and the technical challenges ahead.
Scan scrapbook and album covers inside and out. Scan both sides of every page. Scan every slide in every crate, and every print in every box. Scan notations and letters, tickets and souvenirs too. Why? If those items were important enough to someone long ago to save forward for you, they have stories to tell. So it is.
Near the end of a year-long project scanning thousands of my father’s slides I noticed at the bottom of a crate of yellow Kodak cartons a small bundle neatly wrapped in soft paper. It could have been mistaken for scrap. Dad was not one given to poetic musings. Nothing was written on the paper. The four 35 mm slides inside were so dark (underexposed) and mottled with mold that at first I thought of simply tossing them out. But, I set them aside.
Months later after still more real time and virtual effort I was delighted, no I was impressed, at the glimpse of this light-hearted moment some 75 years ago.
A color photo of my dad taken while he was a Navy pilot during WWII with an attractive woman in Army brown sweater and pleated khaki. It isn’t my mom, my parents didn’t meet until after the war. I don’t recall him mentioning anyone else being in his life during the war years. No Surprise there. The woman in the picture remains a mystery. She has also become a minor fascination.
Each time I see the picture it brings a smile. It’s also nice imagining him wrapping and saving forward this glimpse of himself as a 20-something soldier with a sweet story he wanted to remember and maybe tell one day. Way to go, Pop.
© Quentin Leo