The contents of my soul, in a box, under my bed.
December 3, 2007 9:20 AM   Subscribe

What do I do with my voluminous diaries (mostly in spiral notebook form) that span 20 years of my life?

I have three aims:
  • I want to transfer them into digital form. Since they're almost all handwritten, what is the best way to accomplish this? (My penmanship is highly legible.) Awhile back, I typed up and printed out the notebooks from my teenage years (this was before I had computer access), so I'm assuming a decent scanner with OCR could handle these. I can't afford a scanner - is there a service who would do this for me?
  • I want to physically protect them from damage (fire, flood, etc.) and theft (though this is unlikely).
  • I want them to be destroyed upon my death (which doesn't seem imminent, but you never know). The content is obviously intensely personal, and may hurt and shock loved ones. I'm not famous or particularly interesting, so no one is going to be needing reference material for a biography.
posted by desjardins to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: OCR is unlikely to work, even on good handwriting, but you could very easily make it into a PDF that you can page through. Kinko's - although I suppose now they're owned by FedEx - and similar places often have scanners that you can use. I have no idea how expensive that would be; you can probably get a scanner for about $100, so it would be worth figuring out how much scanning you're talking about.

As far as making them destroyed upon your death - encrypt 'em. This could be as simple as putting them into a password protected zip file (which is very circumventable, but unless your family is *trying* to get in ...). A more secure solution would be to use something like TrueCrypt (on Windows) or an encrypted disk image (on OS X). If the files are encrypted, they may as well be destroyed. I'm not sure about TrueCrypt, but with an OS X disk image, you can unlock it and lock it as needed, and you don't need to remove files from the image to read them, so it's relatively low-effort.

Last thing to consider, about physical protection: do you want access to the notebooks? If you're satisfied with having a digital copy around, then you could put the originals into a safe deposit box, which would protect them from the sorts of things you mentioned. Otherwise, the only thing I can think of is a document safe, which would be out of your budget, if you're concerned about a scanner's expense. (And putting a "destroy these documents" clause in your will might work better with a safe deposit box than a safe, though I don't have any experience to back that up.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:36 AM on December 3, 2007

Why don't you take the time to type them into your computer by hand? It'd be kind of like going back through your life so far. You may come accross a few things you forgot about. Might be nice.
posted by Pecinpah at 9:40 AM on December 3, 2007

Best answer: A friend of mine bought a sheet feed scanner on Ebay, did the task she needed to do and then (reluctantly) resold it a month later at a slight profit.
posted by ceri richard at 9:41 AM on December 3, 2007

Also, it might be worth checking at your bank, my parents' bank offer a safety deposit box for an annual fee of around £20.
posted by ceri richard at 9:45 AM on December 3, 2007

The last two are pretty easy once youve converted them to some digital format. You can bulk scan these into PDFs. No need for OCR unless you want it. You can probably get a cheapish scanner with an ADF for 200 dollars or so.

What you need to do is take all these digital files and encrypt them. You can store them offsite, heck email them to your gmail account, and be done with it. If you die you're going to take your nice long passphrase with you so no one is going to ever open those. You can use something as simple as truecrypt or even PGP, but thats a bit more complex.

You can always ask your next of kin to delete your computers hard drive on the event of your death too, but it doesnt hurt to encrypt this stuff.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:50 AM on December 3, 2007

a friend of mine burned all of hers. Perish the thought!
posted by indigo4963 at 9:52 AM on December 3, 2007

Peripheral remark: there are many authors--Kafka springs to mind--who left explicit orders for work to be destroyed. It wasn't.

When you die, you will not know this but often wishes are ignored in funeral arrangements etc, so if you want them destroyed you need to destroy them yourself. One way out: keep them with your lawyer with instructions for him to destroy when you die.
posted by Postroad at 9:53 AM on December 3, 2007

I had a friend in college who made extra money typing up handwritten manuscripts. I'm not sure how he got the gig, but I know that, while he was usually scrupulous and irresponsible, he took the confidentiality of the manuscripts VERY seriously. The most we got out of him was "this one's pretty good" or "this guy can't spell very well."

I wanted to get a similar gig, but never could find out who he worked for.

I'm sorry I can't offer more solid leads, but it's something to look into.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 10:06 AM on December 3, 2007

On the other side of the coin Philip Larkin requested his diaries destroyed and they were, 30 volumes of them, by an associate. It has since been described as the biggest act of literary vandalism witnessed in Britain.
posted by fire&wings at 10:09 AM on December 3, 2007

I came across all of my diaries when we were remodeling recently. After flippiing througth them I decided to pitch them. I was a pretty tormented person in the past and did not want to hold on to that stuff. I did not want family to read them so by disposing of them myself I solved that problem.
But the bigger thing for me was getting rid of that sad, tormented soul! She was a bit pitiful.
posted by shaarog at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2007

Response by poster: Regarding auto-feed scanners - I suppose I will have to rip all the pages of the notebooks out by hand. How will the feeder handle the torn edges?
posted by desjardins at 10:39 AM on December 3, 2007

Regarding auto-feed scanners - I suppose I will have to rip all the pages of the notebooks out by hand.

Use a razor blade.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:46 AM on December 3, 2007

I would try a sharp utility knife (or something like it) and slice out multiple pages at a time. This would be faster for you and neater for the scanner!
posted by likesuchasand at 10:50 AM on December 3, 2007

Instead of destroying the note books, you might consider taking a photograph of each page instead. Ask your local library if they have a device called a copy stand that you can use. It's just a flat surface with a camera positioned above and lights at angles on either side. People use them to make photographic slides of artwork.

Snapping a photograph would be quicker than scanning and it would preserve the original notebooks if you're not ready to destroy them just yet. A collection of digital photos would be just as easy to browse as a collection of digital scans, but would better represent the pages in context.

Copy stands also aren't difficult to build if you'd rather do this in the privacy of your own home.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:06 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've also used outside services to make photographic slides for me when I didn't have the time to be stuck in a dark room with a copy stand for hours on end. I haven't had to make slides in a while but I'm sure now-a-days it's easy to find services that will do this digitially instead of on film.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2007

Best answer: Regarding auto-feed scanners - I suppose I will have to rip all the pages of the notebooks out by hand.

Wait, don't tear them out and don't use a razor blade or utility knife -- there is a better way. Take a pair of wire cutters and clip the ends (where the the spiral wire forms a loop around another part of the spiral wire). Then you can remove all of the pages by rotating the spiral until it comes all of the way off. Much cleaner, much faster.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:47 AM on December 3, 2007

Best answer: In terms of scanning: i bought the scansnap (mentioned in this thread) and it's been amazing. It was kind of expensive, but I was planning to sell it when I'm done. The problem is, I love it too much and I'm not sure I can part with it. But, I would be able to definitely get my money back from another interested user.

And the machine itself is a godsend. I just finished scanning some old college papers (literally, this minute) -- took about 45 minutes to go through a year and a half of papers. Including -- sorting, cutting, scanning, naming, tagging, resizing.
posted by prophetsearcher at 12:24 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I recently scanned two boxes worth of college notes, several from spiral notebooks.
Brother makes some laser multi-function units that have sheetfed scanners built in. It worked quite well.
I scanned them in greyscale PNG images, which made the pages take up only a few kilobytes instead of the megabyte or so that they would have been if I had scanned them in JPEG.

As far as dealing with double-sided pages, I scanned all the fronts of the pages in a notebook into one folder and then scanned all the backsides of the pages of the notebook into another folder.
There is a program called infranView which is handy for bulk renaming files. I would start with the folder for the front pages, and give them a name like "Biology 3214 page xxx" where xxx is a number starting with 001 and increasing in multiples of 2 (001, 003, 005 and so on). I would then rename the backs of the pages in descending order with multiples of 2, starting with the last number in the set (so if the notebook had 100 pages, it would be 100, 098, 096 and so on). Then i would copy the contents of both folders into the same folder.

The end result is something that i can keep on a flash drive and use the windows picture viewer to "flip" through the pages in my notebooks in order.
posted by itheearl at 12:31 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

oh, and regarding the torn edges, the brother MFC took them in stride.
posted by itheearl at 12:33 PM on December 3, 2007

Hmm, emotional diaries and razor blades? What could go wrong! I kid, of course.

I'd go for the scanning option, then put them in a deposit box and give a lawyer some money for an undertaking that he will destroy them upon your demise.
posted by oxford blue at 3:52 PM on December 3, 2007

I'm pretty sure that standard scanners are really cheap, much cheaper than any service that would do the scanning for you. You're probably stuck doing the grunt work yourself, but it at least won't cost you much.

Depending on the quality you want to scan the material at, you might get away with keeping the scanned results on a microSD card, which means you wouldn't have to worry about encrypting the scans... the card could be easily hid, and by the time anyone found it, tech would have progressed to the point where they wouldn't be able to read it anyway.

You should put some serious thought into maybe not destroying the journals, though. Good and bad, the material there may give some important insights to the family members you leave behind that would otherwise leave them guessing the rest of their lives. I'm leaving all the ugly, embarrassing stuff in my journals to my kids so that when I'm gone, they might be able to get a better understanding of me and therefore themselves. I'm glad for the painful, complicated, difficult things (letters, journals, etc) my family members left me because the insight has been priceless.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 8:26 PM on December 3, 2007

Sorry to be a bit off subject, but PLEASE, do not have the diaries destroyed. Will them to some university library. The fact that you are "not famous or particularly interesting" makes your diaries valuable--Some decades after you're gone.
posted by Goofyy at 6:38 AM on December 4, 2007

To expand on Goofyy's comment: please consider not destroying the journals (including cutting them up for scanning purposes -- use a flat-bed scanner or a camera instead, please!). What you are thinking of as purely personal and uninteresting to others is actually a marvelous window into the life of someone who may have been typical in some ways, exceptional in others, but either way your journals would give some future reader a very different view of everyday life at this point in history than you would get from looking at old newspapers or official histories.

The issue of protecting family and others mentioned can be solved with restricting access to the journals -- perhaps, no access until X years after your death, and no access forever to pages xx-yy where you mention your most intensely personal moment of all time, limitations on how much can be directly quoted, etc.

Some of my master's research involved looking at just that kind of historical ephemera in library archives, and I was really surprised at how few people had considered their papers worth keeping -- a conversation I kept having was "Hey, what happened to your papers?" and they would say, "Oh, I threw them all out when we moved because no one would ever have wanted to read them" and I would want to cry. I think most people underestimate how interesting their lives might be, and overestimate how personally revealing their papers are. But even in our hyper-connected and vividly documented age, the vast majority of personal papers go directly to the landfill.
posted by Forktine at 2:19 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

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