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Think twice before asking Santa for a scanner this year

Thinking of asking Santa to bring you a scanner this year? We know you’re finally ready to organize that giant box of family photos or your organization’s dusty archive materials, but before you address that envelope to the North Pole, let’s talk about the difference between scanning and digital preservation. They’re far from the same thing.

Scanning Versus Digital Preservation

Scanning certainly has a useful place and purpose. It’s great for when you want to send somebody a copy of an insurance bill or post a fun photo on Facebook for Throwback Thursday. It’s easy, it’s immediate, and it’s inexpensive – music to the ears of busy individuals.

Scanning has significant limits, though. Those limits can hamper the ability of future generations to access the materials you so painstakingly scanned for hours at a time.

In the case of family photos, if all you want to do is share them informally with friends and relatives on social media and/or via e-mail, then scan away. If, however, your goal is to create a resource for current and future family members to be able to access when researching their family tree, then you’re not helping them at all.

With scanning, you can title each photo, but that’s about it. You can’t digitally search your library of photos for all the photos containing Uncle Albert, or all the photos taken in Yellowstone, or all the photos taken in 1975.

You can e-mail a relative a scanned photo from a family reunion, but the only way to identify who’s who is to accompany the photo with a lengthy e-mail explanation. Once the family member(s) who know those kinds of details have died, those kinds of explanations become much more difficult to obtain.

In the case of institutional archives, the goal is often to allow researchers to access materials remotely without having to come dig through multiple boxes in a basement. Well-meaning interns may spend weeks scanning sorority composite photos, correspondence about design plans for a memorial, or photos of the construction of a now-significant building.

Without a comprehensive digital preservation strategy that involves tagging, categorization, and high-resolution image preservation, any of the efforts above will be of much less use to people seeking information.

What Scanning Really Is

In simple terms, scanning is really nothing more than the digital version of photocopying. The photocopy will never be the same quality as the original, and it doesn’t possess any additional features that render the photocopy more useful. Most consumer scanners are set to produce JPG or PDF files, which are not preservation images. The images produced will NOT stand the test of time.

Think about photos you see on Facebook. Have you ever tried to Zoom in on one of those images? It gets blurry quickly. That’s because most online images are web derivative files, meaning that they are small or compressed versions of images. Most of these files are jpgs, pngs, or pdfs – modern versions of zip disks, CDs, or DVDs. In other words, one day they, too, will become obsolete.

Digital preservation is an entirely different ballgame. Imagine a digital archive of family photos and records in which future genealogy buffs could search for all the birth certificates issued in Missouri, or a fraternity archive that future members could search for photos of an earlier member who had just been elected Governor.

Imagine being able to pull that information up within minutes from the comfort of your home instead of having to sift through materials in person for weeks.

The file that you’re looking at would then be tied to what we call an archive master TIF file, which is as close to a digital replica of the original item as we are able to capture. An archival preservation TIF file will allow you to render new image types in the future at the same high quality. This is because the master TIF file has a large enough file format to convert to other formats in the future, avoiding the problem caused when CDs etc. fell by the wayside.

The benefits of digital preservation are two-fold:

  1. Through the latest technology, high-resolution copies can be printed that look exactly like the original. This is a wonderful way to display important historic photos instead of hanging the originals on a wall where they will deteriorate over time. More importantly, the preservation files are created at a standard that will endure over time.
  2. The ability to catalog and tag materials enables people now and in the future to search it online based on the information you want attached to each photo or document, the information your target audience is looking for, and the clear and consistent naming system used when tagging materials. For example, with digital preservation, “Uncle Albert” and “Albert Jones” will be recognized as the same person.

Short-Term Scanning Versus a Digital Legacy

Digital preservation can seem overwhelming, but that’s why professional services like HistoryIT exist. We give you back your time and preserve your personal or institutional legacy for subsequent generations.

If all you want to do is post some old photos on Facebook for fun, then the “scan it and can it” method is perfectly fine. Go ahead and mail that letter to Santa.

If, however, you do indeed want to create a meaningful, searchable, and lasting digital legacy, then give us a call.

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