Preserving The Past - Digital vs. Analog
Like many people my age I have accumulated a lot of memorabilia and ephemera from years past. This comes in several forms, from paper documents and old photos, and 8mm films to digital images and records. Each presents their own set of challenges when it comes to preserving them for the future.
Paper memorabilia are vulnerable to a variety of hazards. Digitizing these items provided a backup and allows wider sharing with the extended family. Storing tangible artifacts presents its own set of challenges. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. First, we'll consider conversion to digital.
I had made a good beginning several years before when, prompted by my family’s interest in tracing our ancestry, I started collecting and scanning old documents and photos. One of my daughters had started constructing a family tree for my side of the family, my sister-in-law was doing the same for my wife’s forebears. As I copied material I added it to the media section of the family tree. I added notes that included information, context and background that only I might know. How many people have old photos passed down from relatives where nothing is known about the people in the images? At times the task seemed overwhelming given the volume of material.
About a year ago I decided to pick up the task again. However, this time I wanted to put some thought and planning into the logistics and technical issues of both creating a digital record and storing it in as safe a way as possible. My first step was to gather together everything I could find - photo albums, old documents, 8mm movie films, boxes of loose photos that had never made it into albums, many still in old photo mailers.
A brief aside here to illustrate how changes in technology can add to the challenges of preserving the past. When I was completing my Master’s thesis the university decided to change their computer system. All of my hard work was now in a format and stored on a medium that was no longer current. My department chairperson did battle with the computer department and I was able to complete my degree. However, to this day, I have no digital version that is readable by current technology.
In the example I just gave I do have an ‘analog’ version - bound and unbound paper versions of my thesis. In theory, therefore, I could construct a digital version readable by current technology. In seven decades I have seen enormous changes in technology and have adapted to it. When I was a teenager in the 1960s I was learning to develop film and print negatives but for everyday snapshots most people had the work done by commercial companies. For video we used 8mm cameras and learned to splice film and do primitive titling. We also had gramophones and later record players, as well as tape recorders. In today’s world I use a wide range of digital technology to produce images, video and recorded sound. The contrast in technique and quality is striking. As you might expect I am not enthusiastic about the current back to vinyl fad.
You have probably seen ads offering to transfer your old films and video tapes into modern digital formats. For my part, I don’t want to let my unique, irreplaceable materials out of my sight. Also, I have a history of wanting to learn how to do things myself. However, if you don’t want to acquire the equipment or spend the time these services might be the way to go. If you have a lot of materials the cost can mount quite quickly so doing it yourself can make sense. And once you have the right equipment you can share it with friends and family for further cost savings.
The following are suggestions based on my experience. There are many options available and new items are becoming available all the time. I have used all of the items listed here but you can research equipment that suits your particular needs and price points.
Flat Bed Scanner
A good multi-feature scanner is essential. After a lot of research I opted for the Epson Perfection V600 Color Photo, Image, Film, Negative & Document Scanner. It provides a good range of features at a reasonable price point. As with any piece of equipment it takes a little experience and practice to get the desired results. Once you do this the scanner performs very well.
Digital Film and Slide Scanner
Another option for scanning slides and negatives is the Kodak Scanza Digital Film & Slide Scanner. While it can be a little finicky at times using the slide and negative carrier it is a fairly easy way to convert film to digital images.
8mm and Super 8 Digital Scanner
While some may consider the Wolverine 8mm & Super 8 Reels to Digital MovieMaker Pro Film Digitizer a little pricey, with commercial conversion rates around $1 dollar per foot or more it pays for itself if you have a lot of film to convert. One thing to realize is that film conversion occurs one frame at a time so digitizing 8mm film is time consuming. I would recommend not starting the machine and walking away. Old film can have dried out splices and/or worn sprockets, which can cause it to jam. I didn’t have too many issues - I only had to repair one splice. It depends on a number of factors, including how often the film was shown and how it has been stored. This unit worked well for me and I ran a lot of film through it. It is important to remember that 8mm film had low resolution and the digitizer can only record what is on the film.
In my case I haven’t had to digitize video tape in quite a while so I am not including devices to do that. A little research should help you find ways to do that. In general, you need the appropriate video camera or the player to connect with. As with film transfer tape conversion is real time.
Storage is relatively inexpensive, especially compared with the early days of computing. For example, a 4 terabyte drive can be purchased for around $100. However, there are a number of things to consider when storing digital files.
It is really important to think carefully about how to organize all the various categories of files that you have digitized. Each individual will have different needs and priorities. My archive will not look like your archive. All that matters is that it is organized in a way that makes sense and allows you to easily find things. Naming folders and files is essential. It really pays off to give careful consideration to your archive structure before you add items.
Hard drives fail. Therefore, do not rely on just one location for your archive. As a photographer I am constantly aware of the need for redundancy in storing files. I do not want years of work to evaporate. For my important archives, whether photo images or my family archive I store the files in multiple places. This includes backups on hard drives and in the Cloud. I use a backup service for my PC and keep separate backups for my unprocessed and processed photo images. My family archive is also backed up on a different service that has the benefit of redundancy as well as allowing easy sharing with family members. I also plan to create a separate hard drive with a duplicate set of files.
This may seem like a lot of work but with a little motivation and developing a routine it is not that burdensome once you have the framework set up. And you can automate it where possible.
Recently I was interviewed for an oral history project in Scotland. I grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s, and the organizers wanted to speak with people who had experienced those times. This was a very interesting experience. I have conducted several oral history interviews but had never previously been the subject of one.
When preserving the past don’t overlook the ability to record the experiences of people who lived through a particular time period. Everyone has a story to tell. It has never been easier to record spoken word. Absolutely anyone can do this.
What About The Originals?
Digitizing items from the past allows easier sharing to a wider audience. However, there is something special about seeing originals.
Let me give you examples of how an original artifact has more power than a copy. A handwritten letter by an ancestor, something held by that person, thoughts written down, surely has more impact than a digital copy. This is true for non-personal items too. I have a postcard that was written aboard and carried on the Hindenburg. It bears the cancellation of the airship’s post office and contains a handwritten note by a passenger describing the experience of being on board. When I hold that in my hand I am instantly connected with history in a way that I wouldn’t be looking at a digital image.
While digitizing items has benefits, the originals also deserve to be preserved. The longevity of paper depends on the type of paper and how it has been stored. I was once given the opportunity to hold a very old document signed by Queen Isabella. It was in an archival protective sleeve but being able to hold a centuries old document was certainly an experience.
Therefore, I recommend taking the time to properly store old negatives, letters, photos. Archival quality sleeves are available and relatively inexpensive. Use protective gloves when handling negatives. If stored well items can last a very long time.
And finally, one of the most tragic things occurs when old people die and their memories and personal items are discarded, often without concern. I know that we cannot save everything and not everything may have perceived value, but let us at least try.