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How to Digitize Family History

Updated on January 17, 2012

Today is a good day to digitize your family history. The equipment has never been cheaper, storage for your files - both at home and online - is all but free, and once done, you remove forever the risk that a fire or flood carries away your heritage.

Had digital storage been around 40 years ago, then the federal government would not have lost some 18 million military personal records in the 1973 National Archives Fire in Overland, Missouri. Around 80% of all US Army personal records relating to discharges between 1912 to 1960 went up in smoke, along with US Air Force and US Reserve personnel records. Those records are now gone baby. Gone.

No excuses now though.

Once digitized, you can make multiple copies
Once digitized, you can make multiple copies

The best insurance

And once you have digitized your family history, you can make multiple copies - or pass on multiple links - and ensure that all family members have their own copy. You can borrow photos and documents from that reclusive, squirrelly cousin, make copies, and finally get your hands on the records that probably should have passed to you in the first place!

When I visited my in-laws this summer, I got hold of a scanner and copied all the photos from their old albums and even copied some old documents that had been buried in a dusty old scrapbook for decades. Some pages were too delicate to flatten out onto the scanner glass, so I just took pictures with my digital camera.

Every kind of family history artifact such as photographs, documents, films and videos, personal items, audio recordings - even stories that so far only live in a human mind - can be recorded, preserved and stored in a digital file. It's the best insurance.

Formats changing?

Now, the technique for digitizing each kind of family history artifact differs a bit, and I will cover each one in turn. But before that, here's some advice that covers them all.

Don't worry about new technology. I often hear people say, "How do I know what format to use? No sooner do they invent some new gizmo than a new one comes along and makes the old one obsolete." And that's true. But don't worry about it. There will always be converters and people who can move files from one to the other. How do I know that? Because right now, today, there is not a single format - from before daguerreotypes right through to Betamax and VHS that cannot be converted. Not a one.

Don't scrimp on file sizes
Don't scrimp on file sizes

File sizes?

Don't scrimp on file size. The old rule was that you should keep your digital files small because that way you wouldn't gum up your hard drive. Have you seen the price of computer storage lately? You can get a terabyte of space for about $100. Let's say one photograph, scanned in super fine detail, takes up 5 MB. You will be able to store 200,000 photographs for a hundred bucks!

And family history video - which used to choke the old drives - now barely causes a burp.

Online or home storage?

Where ever possible, take advantage of sites like Flickr, Picasa and YouTube and store family history picture and video files online. Storing things on your own computer is essential, but online storage is free - or close to - and can be accessed from anywhere. The future of computing is almost certainly going to see us own one giant or lots of smaller digital bins out in the "cloud" that we can tap into whenever we need to.

My guess is that in this future, the programs we will increasingly use will be "open source" - meaning that you won't need to own or be forced to buy the software to access and enjoy your digitized family history data. (Just look at "OpenOffice" that gives you - for free - most of the Microsoft Office suite.)

But don't throw away your hard drive just yet. Whenever you upload audio, video or pictorial material to a site, even a free site like HubPages, make sure you keep a copy in your own files. That goes double for programs which are not free or which require a monthly subscription - like If the site disappears overnight, you don't want your data going AWOL.

OK. So much for the why. Now for the how.

Photos and Documents

This is the easy part of digitizing family history. You can use a flatbed scanner to scan photos, along with slides and even photograph negatives. (Make sure you clean the glass and blow the dust off first.)

What resolution? The choice you make will depend on whether you intend to use your pictures on computer screens and monitors; or if you will want to print them. Your average PC has a default resolution of 96 dpi, and print requires 300 dpi. So you could use these settings for those uses. If you are going to email or post the images, you could scan at 96 dpi. If you will want to print, scan at a minimum 300 dpi.

The safest course is to scan everything at a minimum 300dpi. And for originals smaller the 4x6, scan at 600dpi. Negatives and slides: scan at 1200 or 2400 dpi (it's going to be a bit slow at that resolution though).

And if for any reason it is not practical to scan, use a digital camera and take a snap! And once you are done, take the chance to tidy up any blemishes on the images: Professional photo restoration and retouching.

Films and video

For old film (8mm, 16mm etc) you could just project the film in your garage (nice and dark) and set your video camera up on a tripod and record that way.

Or, if you don't have the projector, you are going to need to use a pro to convert (which ought to give you a better result - provided they use a Telecine machine). If you have a modern video camera that uses MiniDV, you can ask the guy in the store to output the file to a miniDV. Then you can upload that to your computer with your video camera - the same way you upload your regular footage. Otherwise, get them to burn a DVD.

For tape based family history film, like super 8 and VHS, you may be able to use your old camera as a player and hook it up with RCA cables to your new camera. Hit "play" on the old camera and "record" on the new and see what happens. Failing that, you will have to buy a pro deck or go back to your converter guy.


Most of the time, old family history audio is preserved on audio cassette tapes. Often, someone in the family had the foresight to sit down and record grandma or grandpa telling their life story before they passed. And now they are gone, that old cassette is gold. Before you do anything else, break off that protection tab, the little square one at the top of the cassette attached on one side. With it safely removed, you cannot record over the tape. (You may need a small screw driver or a sharp fingernail to do it.)

Digitizing audio is pretty simple. First you need the player for the cassette tape. Then you need a 1/8th stereo headphone cable that you are going to connect from your cassette player to your computer (analogue) audio input. Then using "Audacity" or some other simple audio editing software, import the audio into the computer. Once you have ingested it, you can edit it into tracks, name them, and import those into iTunes. You can then burn your own CD from iTunes if you want.

Today is the day

For other kinds of family history material, you can use modern video, audio and still camera recorders to digitize. That will ensure that the record you create is already a digital record and can now be stored.

Digitizing family history can be time consuming. Can you put it off? Back in 1973, the federal government may not have been able to digitize its records, but it could have at least photographed them for microfiche. But it put that job off. The consequences of losing this priceless material are so dire that we really have no choice. Today is a good day to digitize your family history.


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    • maggs224 profile image


      3 years ago from Sunny Spain

      A fascinating hub full of really useful information and I agree with you today is the day, images from our past once lost cannot be retaken.

      I just wish we had all this technology when I was a girl, and that I would have had the foresight to have used them to capture the past on my way through it :D

      Voting up and hitting the relevant buttons as I go

    • profile image

      Fosamax Lawyers 

      7 years ago

      Today keeping all your memorabilia is not hard because of computer and different saving devices. Or you can upload your pictures on a site for temporary save files. This is very important for future use.

      Congrats for this Good hub!

    • danieliam profile image


      7 years ago

      I love to screen capture things I find online too and add those to my digital files. They get a special folder all their own though.

    • AdrienneZMilligan profile image


      8 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      WOW - lots of information! My husband and I are both avid genealogists and get the bug often. We often tell others to do exactly what you've listed: Digitize it to protect it. Thanks for the advice and tips.


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