Archiving Family Treasures
May 2, 2012 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Archiving Really old photos: Your suggestions on methodology and tools?

For 6 years, now, I've been archiving photos from various grandparents and great grandparents, and it's back-breaking-ly slow to get the detail level that I'd like to see in the archival process.

I have a flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter. It's rated at 2400 hardware resolution. I typically scan at around 300, but then if I'm scanning much smaller photos, I'll up the resolution.

I scan to TIF, and I try to scan in multiple images at one time. I use Vuescan for the scanning work, as it has an auto-repeat mode (lets me scan another image without having to walk back to the desk), scan to file, and opens Photoshop to edit the final scan.

In Photoshop, I'll crop down to particular images, do some of the automatic adjustments, and then tweak brightness and contrast where necessary. I'll then save the image out, and upload it to Flickr.

In Flickr, I'll tag it with the names of the individuals appearing in the image, and I'll hotlink those images back to their family tree page. Here's a set example of some of my finished images.

My extended family really enjoys my work, and is very thankful that I'm archiving it while the images are still in one piece. However, it takes forever to complete even one image to my satisfaction.

I'm wondering if there are any better tools out there suited to my process, or if my process could also use some tuning.
posted by thanotopsis to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm doing a similar thing, although I have less images than you do (jealous!). It's not quite what you were expecting for an answer, but firstly, make sure you are preserving the photos themselves as well as you can. Regular old plastic file folders are perfectly good, as the plastic itself won't degrade the photos. I read a thread about this, but for the life of me can't remember the names of the types of plastics that are OK, and which are dodgy, but I do remember that the normal plastic archival file folder pockets you can buy at stationary stores are fine. Keep the photos out of the light, except when scanning.

Never use picnik on flickr to edit your photos. I made the mistake of editing one to crop it, and realised when I saw the before and after, that picnik reduce the color depth of your images without telling you. WTF!

Make sure you have a backup and an offsite backup of those images. I use a time machine (a cheap raid setup works great too) to keep an onsite backup, and I subscribe to an online backup service too, in case my house is burgled or burnt down or destroyed in an earthquake. I use Backblaze, but crashplan, carbonite and many others are good too.
posted by Joh at 3:41 PM on May 2, 2012

Actually, it sounds like you're doing a great job already. The thing to bear in mind is that archiving is an extremely time-consuming process that demands a ridiculous amount of attention to detail. Again, it seems as though your process is working very well so far. Just hang in there and keep plunking away at it, and you'll get there!

To build upon Joh's comment, make sure that the materials you use for preserving your originals are acid-free, lignin-free, archival-quality ones. As a professional archivist, I don't recommend putting them in just any kind of plastic, because the oils used in those *will* corrode and/or yellow the original photographs in time. Light Impressions is an excellent resource for high-quality archival goods; with all the work you've put into this project, I think it's worth investing in high-quality materials for preserving these family treasures.
posted by chatelaine at 4:02 PM on May 2, 2012

Chatelaine, I looked up the original advice thread I had read elsewhere, and the recommendation was to use polypropylene or polyethylene sleeves, but never to use PVC. Is this correct by your knowledge?
posted by Joh at 4:08 PM on May 2, 2012

Well, one of the purposes of my digitization is that these images have floated through the families for decades, and the quality of the originals has degraded to such an extent that the originals aren't really worth saving any more except as a curiosity.

My mother had kept her parents and grandparents' images and slides in her garage for nearly 20 years before I pulled them out of there and started, well, "yelling" is probably not the word you want to say when you're talking about your mother. When I was hard up for a gift for my grandmother's 85th Christmas, I took a yellowing and faded wallet-sized image of her father, ran it through Photoshop, and then used color slides he'd taken with his own camera around the same time, and I colorized it. (that sounds a lot cooler than the actual process of me sampling colors and using a paintbrush)

For many of these images, I've had to practically digitally reconstruct them. This one was in 3 pieces, and is a picture of a confirmation class from 1907.

So, what I'm saying is: I'm doubting that anyone will care what happens to the originals. Over 100 years of not caring has proven that, so far. My hope is that by turning them into a sequence of 1s and 0s, I can preserve them beyond the laziness of both sides of my family.

I may eventually box them up and hand them over to historical societies for the places that they represent, but even then, I doubt that they'd be interested in the originals.
posted by thanotopsis at 4:34 PM on May 2, 2012

You probably know this by now, but the two most important things for preserving the original photographs are that you keep them out of sunlight and acid-free. In the archives where I worked, we used Gaylord for our archival supplies. If you use cotton/nitrile gloves and put the photos into sleeves and then acid-free boxes, you'll go a long way toward keeping them safe, in case you should want or need them later on.

Anyway, about the digital copies, we used Extensis Portfolio for managing our digital assets. I didn't work with it too much, but it seems like a helpful tool for searching, managing metadata if that's something you care about, and - maybe best of all - batch converting. If you'll ever need a large number of your photos scaled down into .jpgs, say, for printing for a family reunion or something, it batch them all to a different format pretty quickly. It's kind of pricey at $200, but it's a good tool for keeping everything organized.

Great photos, by the way. I wish someone would do this in my own family.
posted by Comic Sans-Culotte at 6:01 PM on May 2, 2012

It sounds like you are doing a great job with the digital copies. A good backup system is the last measure.

For preserving the originals, I found that the art supply store next to the art school sold portfolios which were labelled as being "archive-safe". They may not be as good as Gaylord, but they are certainly better than the cheap sticky albums that the photos had been in. I remounted all of the photos that I had scanned with photo-corners in the portfolio books (they were odd sizes) and included labels with the file names of the scanned image.
posted by jb at 7:33 AM on May 3, 2012

@Joh- archivally, we use Mylar; I can't recall if that's comprised of polyprop/polyeth or not... you are correct about not using PVC. :)

Back to the OP: I'd still strongly advise keeping the originals. Digital archiving is amazing and all, but in time, the data itself is still subject to bitrot and the flux of ever-changing technologies, formats, etc., whereas the originals, well-preserved and intact, are more likely to withstand the ages. I know it's your project and your family's things, but think about keeping them anyway. Best of luck!
posted by chatelaine at 10:25 AM on May 4, 2012

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