Looking for ideas for photo and document scanning, storage, and translation
November 24, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Best practices for scanning, care, and storage of old documents and photos?

In cleaning out my late mom's apartment, I have come across a seriously vast collection of old (and never before seen by me, dammit mom) photos and documents, some of which are over 100 years old. They've been stored willy-nilly in envelopes and cardboard boxes in hot, stuffy closets, and while most of them are in surprisingly good shape, some are extremely fragile/brittle (my great-great-grandparents' ketubah, ship manifests from the 1880s, &c).

This is a two part question, I guess.

First: I have access to a huge and amazing archival scanner at work, so I could potentially scan them all myself. The people who use the scanner have extensive training/experience in handling ancient parchment texts, so I think we could get this done without a lot of damage. However, there are roughly 20,000 photos. Yes. 20,000. And maybe about 200 or so documents. So I feel kind of dickish asking my coworkers to help me with this enormous non-work-related project. Anyway, I assume there are places that do this kind of thing all the time, right? Scan huge amounts of old stuff carefully and whatnot? What would be some good resources for this in either NYC or DC?

Second: Once I scan (or have someone else scan) everything, what is the best way to store the originals long-term? (I guess if I pay to have it done, the scanning people will probably be able to answer this for me.)

Okay, I lied, this is a three-part question: about 10k of the photos are of my dad's family in Hungary, and many of them have writing on the back. What would be the best way to go about having this all translated? There are, AFAIK, no family members alive who can help me with this. Again, resources in NYC or DC preferred but not absolutely necessary.
posted by elizardbits to Technology (8 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You might find some helpful info in this askme of mine. And no, I still haven't gotten around to scanning the scrapbook. This winter, perhaps!
posted by rtha at 11:29 AM on November 24, 2010

Best answer: The Smithsonian Archives blog has some tips from Archives Month.
posted by djb at 11:35 AM on November 24, 2010

Best answer: As an archivist, I feel compelled to suggest that scanning isn't necessarily the best form of preservation unless you want to promote more access to these materials and/or the originals are fragile and it is necessary to create a digital surrogate for use. Most people in the preservation/conservation/archives world consider digital objects more fragile than their analog counterparts. As you've noted, some of the papers in your family collection are over a 100 years old and still in good shape; still accessible and readable in it's current form. Will the digital copies still be accessible in 100 years? Not unless you and your ancestors are vigilant about keeping up with technology and being consistent about migrating over to the newer formats.

Also, being an archivist, the main skill is appraisal. Even if I decided that scanning was the way to go, I would not scan all 20,000 photographs. Are there multiple photographs of the same event, people, or location? Just choose the best one(s).

Here are some resources that might help you as well:

Northeast Document Conservation Center: Resources for Private and Family Collections

Library of Congress: Preparing, Protecting, Preserving Your Family Treasures

NARA: Should I Digitize my Photo Collection? (mostly a restatement of the concerns that I listed above, but there might be other links on NARA's site that you will find useful).
posted by kaybdc at 11:42 AM on November 24, 2010

There was a recent ask.me that was similar, and in which I posted this link.
posted by theora55 at 12:16 PM on November 24, 2010

Most cities have storage companies that have climate controlled lockers. Unless you have a location in your property that could be climate controlled, it will be better to store them elsewhere. Put everything in acid-free materials and boxes and send them to a storage facility.
posted by JJ86 at 1:10 PM on November 24, 2010

One last point is that if the materials are stabilized and you don't need to share every last document with your family, then it doesn't make sense to digitize everything. Even archival disking all the scanned documents as TIFS will not promise that those copies will last as long as the originals. Many archivists believe that digital archiving has less of a shelf life than the originals.

An example is a guy I know that has a huge amount of digital tape recordings. The specific format players are next to impossible to find now so he has to transfer these recordings to another format to save them for the future. Unfortunately the lack of digital tape players is making this task extremely difficult.
posted by JJ86 at 1:17 PM on November 24, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the awesome links, duders. However, it occurred to me on my walk home from work that I walk past the Center for Jewish History every goddamn day and surely they will be able to help with ideas for restoration and storage.

kaybdc, you're right - there are a ton of duplicates. Any interesting/notable ones will be donated to the CJH. But yes, the main purpose of the scanning is to be able to share these with my extended family without having to force them to store hundreds of photos themselves.
posted by elizardbits at 4:43 PM on November 24, 2010

You've gotten a lot of good info already; it also sounds like you have a good resource to contact on one of your walks home. Here's a few more links to previous AskMe threads, in case they're of interest:

- "Please keep me from slowly destroying all my good stuff"
- "How can I best preserve several boxes of family photos, letters, and documents?"
- "Help me preserve my fathers memorabilia"
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 8:36 PM on November 24, 2010

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