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Digitizing Family Papers and Photographs

Digitizing your originals can allow you to view and share your items without handling, which can cause damage. Keep your originals after you digitize them, because digital files have their own preservation risks and can easily be lost. Whether digitizing your family papers yourself or having a company do it, it is important that the originals be handled carefully so they are not damaged in the process.

A few considerations in digitizing:

  • For flat paper and photographs, make sure the original fits complete on the surface of the scanner. The lid of the scanner can crush and crease the original if the paper doesn’t fit on the scanner.
  • For books, use a copy stand instead of a flatbed scanner. Use book supports, wedges or a cradle so the binding is opened comfortably without force.
  • Automatic feed scanners are not suitable for fragile, weak, bent, or valuable papers; papers can jam and become torn in automatic feed scanners.

File Naming: Use only the letters of the Latin alphabet (A-Z, a-z) when creating alpha-numeric identifications. Don’t use spaces, punctuation or symbols. Use hyphens and underscores instead of spaces.

  • Add basic Metadata to files: Who, What, Where, and When. Metadata helps find and identify files later in time; there are a number of metadata options.
  • Back Up your Files- Follow the 3-2-1 Rule. Three copies, stored on two different media, and one copy located off-site.


Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative website –


American Society for Media Photographers Best Practices –


Universal Photographers Digital Imaging Guidelines – 


Wilhelm Imaging Research – 


Image Permanence Institute –


FADGI – Federal Agency Digital Guidelines initiative

VERY specific guidelines for digitizing all types of images including prints and transparencies


FADGI Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative-2016

Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials Federal  Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative-2016 Final_rev1.pdf


Peter Krogh – Digitizing Photos


If the negative is very important and needs to be kept, it should be duplicated. (See: Where can I find sources for duplicating/copying historical photographs?


Digital Archiving Tips from Library of Congress

The basics of scanning – LOC –


How do I digitize my print photographs?

Institutions should refer to  Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials , which covers all technical considerations, including equipment, process, image performance metrics, quality management, and metadata.

The guidelines above are also a useful reference for digitizing photographs at home. See sections starting on pp. 4, 38, 49, 67 and 79 for detailed information on different file formats, transmission scanning, specifications, and resolution.


What resolution should I use when digitizing?

Note that resolution is not the only consideration when digitizing. See Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials. In short, it depends on what is being digitized and the intended use of the digitized image.

See pp. 49-67 of the guidelines above.


What equipment do I need for scanning/digitizing?

Institutions should refer to Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials, which covers all technical considerations, including equipment, process, image performance metrics, quality management, and metadata.

For digitizing with a digital single lens reflex camera, specifically, the AIC Guide to Digital Photography and Conservation Documentation discusses camera models and settings in detail.

Home users, refer to pp. 13-14 in the Technical Guidelines for an explanation of why no system is perfect and what the tradeoffs are with regular office and home scanners. However, if the primary objective of scanning personal collections is to share them more widely with family and friends, a carefully chosen home scanner is more than adequate. It can be helpful to look up reviews in technical/trade publications comparing various scanners to understand the limitations of the equipment.


Are there service providers that can digitize my collection for me?

Yes. Institutions should choose service providers that also provide preservation and conservation services, as stabilization of items is often necessary to acquire a good or complete image and the safe handling of the collections is equally important. Many members of the Regional Alliance for Preservation  provide both conservation and imaging services and serve both institutional and individual clients.

A quick Internet search reveals a range of providers that can digitize/reformat personal home collections. If the original format is to be saved, choose a service provider that also provides preservation and conservation services (see link in above paragraph). If choosing a service provider without preservation expertise, choose a local provider to avoid shipping collections, especially overseas.


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