Digitize Oversized Records

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Census By Mary V. Danielsen of Documented Legacy

Oversized or large documents and photos pose a unique scanning challenge for family archivists looking to have them digitized. They don’t easily fit into a standard folder and quite often there isn’t an easy way to scan these images. Still, it’s important to protect these items as part of your family history archive. Whether you have a large collection of oversized documents or a single letter, you have more options today for how to preserve these awkward items.

This week, try to tackle a few of these rotund artifacts. The first step is remembering their importance and historic value in your family. If these are old images or fragile documents, you can’t safely run them through an all-in-one scanner. Let’s consider your other options using equipment and software you may already have.

Before you begin, wash your hands and wear protective archival cotton gloves. You don’t want oils on your hands or random ink to get on your artifacts. Work in a clean space with good air flow. Lint, dust and mold are common problems when working with old stored items. Keep food and drinks away from where you are working. Slowly lay out these artifacts on a clean and dry surface.

Digital Camera

Using a DSLR camera and a tripod try setting up a home studio to shoot images on a table top or wall. Using a white magnetic board or magnetic strips placed flat against the wall you can use magnets on the outer edges to hold your image in place. Set your camera on the tripod and check your camera settings. Shoot these images at the highest resolution possible. Before shooting, make sure nothing reflects or casts shadows on your items. Carefully shoot and test your images. If you use a tabletop set up, create a whiteboard using white foam board from any craft or office supply store. I stitch them together using white duct tape on the backside. Adjust the tripod so the camera is parallel to the table.

Another option is to try shooting a document in sections using a macro lens and then stitching it together in your photo editing software. If you try this, make sure you overlap the sections. This step may not follow the technical guidelines established in the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI), but there are applications for its use with a family historian. Perhaps you’re digitizing childhood artwork or shooting an image so detailed that you’d like to review it in sections. Try different techniques.

In post production, label and date your images, giving them identifying information. Delete any unnecessary or blurry images. Using your photo editing software, create a duplicate image and save it as a tiff file. This will be your master digital file. You’re never to edit the image in this file. As a rule of thumb, with critical images or artifacts I typically create three digital files. One is saved as a jpeg file at 300 dots per inch (dpi). Another is a 600 dpi jpeg and the third is a tiff file, saved at 600 or 1200 dpi.

Portable Flatbed Scanner

We’re not going to white wash the discussion, but we’re pretty proud of our Flip-Pal mobile scanners. Here’s why. The Flip-Pal mobile scanner offers you many of the same capabilities as a larger flatbed scanner with a few trade offs. First it is easy to use and portable. You can set the scanner at 300 or 600 dpi, as mentioned earlier. The built in stitching software allows you to easily create one large image from many smaller scans.

Using the table top white board, lay out your artifact. Remove the lid from the Flip-Pal mobile scanner and using the flip-and-scan method begin in the upper left hand corner scanning small sections at a time. Take your time. Be certain to create overlap sections with each image, as the software is designed to recognize similarities.

In post production, you’ll also want to create a digital master file by saving a duplicate image as a tiff file with a resolution of 600 dpi.

  • IMG_9357
    This oversized picture is about 20" wide

Large flatbed scanners

The advantage to having one of these steam engines in the house is the ability to scan large fragile documents on a steady surface. If you have a large collection to digitize and you’re buying a scanner, be certain that it scans both photos and documents. You’ll want to be able to scan images to jpeg, tiff or pdf files. If not, you’ll do more work in post production.

The downside to these scanners is that most consumer grade scanners have a flat bed surface size that is 8 1/2” x 11” while many family history documents are 8 1/2” x 14” in size. So you will still be stitching images together in post production. These scanners are not intended to be portable either. Scanners with larger flat beds are typically unaffordable for the average household.

If after reviewing the materials in your collection, you decide you’d prefer to have a professional conservator evaluate and digitize your artifacts, find a professional in your area through the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

They will work closely with your artifacts to ensure the safest handling and care. A conservator’s studio is equipped with a wide range of specialized imaging systems customized to the needs of one’s collections. As well, their digitization processes are designed specifically for digitizing fragile and historic materials.

I approach the challenge of digitizing large objects and artifacts with the philosophy that there is more than one way to do the job. If you have this equipment, try them all. One will give you the result you’re looking for.

Remember to back up your files using the 3-2-1 method.

4 Responses to Digitize Oversized Records

  1. Chris August 26, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    This advice, whilst obviously well sources, appears to be contrary to that given by Flip-Pal demonstrators at organised Family History Events who seem to suggest that there is no limit on the size of document being scanned.

    • Gordon Nuttall August 28, 2014 at 3:43 am #

      Chris, it is true what you have heard at Family History events that we have not found a limit on the size of the document being scanned.

  2. Di McAlpine August 23, 2014 at 1:07 am #

    What is a tiff file?

    • Gordon Nuttall August 23, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

      TIFF is a type of file format that is lossless but results in large file size. JPG compresses files to make them smaller, but reduces the image quality slightly each time it is resaved.

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