Creating & Maintaining Your Digital Archive (at home)

Revised and updated from a Nov. 2011 article:

A couple years ago, I visited the vault of the Monterey County Historical Society, where I looked through some Filipino newspapers from the 1930s. The pages were yellowish and brown on the edges, and the curator told me that this is because newspapers in that era contained a lot of acid and the paper was not properly washed when processed. Even though we were wearing gloves, careful lifting of the pages always resulted in the visible degradation of the page; sadly, my lap was soon full of brown flakes of paper when we were done.

So what do you do with your old documents and images, especially if they have some historical and/or educational significance? One solution is to donate or loan it to a historical society, library, or museum. However, you can’t always count on such institutions to care for your materials as you would like them to. Things do get lost sometimes (as I learned when I requested to see hard copies of the Philippine Advocate at a UC Berkeley Library); it’s possible that old documents might one day be found rolled up and rubber-banded, stuck in the corner of a back shelf. With such a large volume of materials in storage at a university, there’s a chance that your material will be given a number, forgotten, and become inaccessible–especially to non-academics.

Emily Porcincula Lawsin reports that the only reason we now are able to see hard copies of The Filipino Student Bulletin, c. 1922-39, is because Robert Flor happened to see them in a garbage can where they’d been discarded from a library at the University of Washington!*

If you give your files to a local historical organization’s archive, it may be more appreciated and more accessible to an interested community. However, such localized collections are not always well organized, and they might not have enough funds to have a proper preservation system in place. I remember visiting such an organization to do research, and ended up helping the curators hunt through half a dozen dusty cardboard boxes, piled in a closet.

I don’t want to scare you off; some institutions will treat your materials well. But you have to think carefully about the risks for any of these options. On the other hand, things that you keep at home can also get misfiled, moldy, degraded by its own acid content, chewed by vermin, sold in yard sales after you die, and otherwise spirited away.

A lot of collectors make digital copies, and store them on CDs, DVDs, in their hard drives, or in the Cloud. Fortunately, or unfortunately, content management systems change. And in general, technology is constantly changing with such rapidity that it’s hard to keep up with what memory tool has been discarded, and what’s currently in use.

But let’s say that you are going to store and maintain your own collection for now. American Indian has a tutorial on how to archive your images and documents for posterity. Nicholas Jackson also provides some great tips in “Taking Care of Your Personal Archives” (The Atlantic, Nov., 2010). Keep both hard copies and digital copies. Here’s a brief list of steps drawn from And, yes, it will be tedious. But at least you can be sure that you are doing the right thing for your collection!

You will need:

* Good quality flatbed scanner (slow and heavy is better than fast and lightweight)
* Access to an archival grade printer
* A good camera (for photographing objects). A scanner will provide the best reproduction, with the least distortion, for photographs and texts.
* Adobe Photoshop or other image editing software.

To do list:
* Gather documents and photographs
* Create high (max.) resolution digital scans (set a goal of doing a certain number of scans per day)
* Save and store the scans in .tiff or .jpg format
* Digital images: keep one original version and create one “restored” version of each image.
* Create multiple backup copies: one or two copies of each image for your hard drive, same on CD (or whatever is the current most dependable (i.e. usable on most computers) technology.
* Create an archival print copy (i.e. “good old fashioned hard copy”), 8 x 10 prints, if possible, at maximum resolution.
* Place CD copy and print copy in off-site storage, e.g. safety deposit box in your local bank.
* Set up a regular, annual maintenance plan, which may include checking items for aging, and updating your images to new technology.

See Create Digital Archive of Vintage Photographs for more detail instructions.

* “Pensionados, Paisanos, & Pinoys: An Analysis of the Filipino Student Bulletin,” 1922-1939, FANHS 4, (1996): 33.