Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Do I Do All Day? I Digitize and Archive Family Photos and Videos

This is the second in a series of posts about how a disabled person like me passes the time at home, now that I no longer work.

I slowly turn the pages of a dusty old album, uncovering photos that I’ve never seen before, photos that perhaps nobody has laid eyes on for 50 years. The images looking back at me begin to paint a picture of what life was like for my ancestors in the 1940s, or 1950s, well before I was born. For a while it’s as if I’m on an archaeological dig, unearthing fairly interesting pieces of jewelry or pottery. Then I turn the page one more time, and a picture just jumps out at me. I pause and admire this rare artifact. Perhaps it’s my parents, before children, posing hand in hand. Or maybe it’s my mother, the sweet, god-fearing, angelic person that she was, her ball cap turned backwards, in a drunken embrace with her friends who are clutching bottles of whiskey. Maybe it’s a picture of me as an eight-year-old striking a thoughtful pose, belying a measure of wisdom not yet earned. These are the types of extraordinary memories unearthed by digging through long forgotten family photos. There’s nothing like it.

There are so many reasons that our knowledge of our ancestors is lacking, but some of those reasons do not exist going forward. We now have the ability, and I would argue the obligation, to share our lives, our times, with those who will follow us. One basic step toward that end is archiving family photos and videos. This is a task that I took up with vigor after I stopped working a few years ago. Only recently did I complete the first phase. The photos and videos are all digitized, and stored in a secure manner.

I realize that many of you are simply too busy for such a venture. But I have an abundance of time, so I took on this project from scratch, if you will. However, there are services available which will digitize these photos and videos for you. It may be expensive, but it is money well spent. Once you digitize the photos and videos, and store the files in a safe location (or two, or three), then you can take your sweet time doing whatever it is you decide to do with these memories.

But you need to get your images digitized, and you need to do it sooner rather than later, for several reasons. First, these old photos and videos slowly and steadily deteriorate over time. I saw this repeatedly with my parents’ oldest photographs, and it was a shame. Second, these old photos and videos are subject to being lost, or suffering damage from fires, floods, and leaky roofs, not to mention overzealous attic cleanings. Third, it really helps to catalog these items before the oldest members of your family have passed away. I started digitizing my father’s slide collection a few months before he died, and I was able to question him about several of the slides. However, much of my work was done after both of my parents had passed away. I so wish I could’ve asked about the circumstances of some of these scenes. But it’s too late now.

I enjoyed a mostly happy childhood, or at least that’s how I remember it. Throughout this archiving process I reconnected with my youth, and became newly acquainted with my parents’ early lives. Sure, many, if not most of the people in the oldest photos have passed away, but I feel their spirit anew. Along with the tender, nostalgic feelings come occasional moments of sadness and loss. However, my prevailing sentiments are those of connection, discovery, and delight. Because of what I’m doing with my ancestors’ materials and my own materials, future generations of my family will feel this way too.

It has been a physical challenge for me to scan so many photos. Because MS has affected the dexterity and strength in my hands, in most cases I was unable to remove photos from their albums or slides from their boxes, and then replace them after scanning. Zach and Kim helped me out significantly. Also, I took my sweet time. I probably never scanned more than 25 pictures in a single day.

Scanning videos was more straightforward. I borrowed a friend’s device that is placed between a VCR player and a computer, and the videos were simply streamed directly to my hard drive over the period of a few days.

Now that I possess this wonderful collection, both my parents’ photos and those of Kim and me (we didn’t start taking digital pictures until about 2000), I have many of options on how to share them. In addition to sending around DVDs, etc. to friends and relatives, I know there are online services to facilitate sharing. My parents’ collection alone is over 2000 photos, spanning 80 years, so I’m not sure which online venue is best. I think some sort of invitation-only format would be appropriate. Suggestions?

As many of you with MS can understand, after spending my entire adult life frantically advancing my career, it was more than a little deflating to suddenly stop. But it’s projects like this one that help take the sting out of being home on disability. I can’t think of a better use for my time.

In a separate post, I will share some of the nuts and bolts lessons that I’ve learned through this long process, for the benefit of those of you who might be interested in diving into a similar project.

Here are my other posts in this series:

1. I Watch (mostly) Quality Television
3. I Read Books
4. I Attend Courses at Top Universities (sort of)
5. I Nap
6. I Blog
7. I Read Other People's Blogs


  1. "I so wish I could’ve asked about the circumstances of some of these scenes. But it’s too late now."

    Painfully true. Sorting through some 60 years of detritus from my parents' house, I find myself wishing I could ask "Where was this? When was this? Who were these people?" and in some cases, "Why on earth did you keep this?" Too late now.

    I'm trying to record what I do know about the images I have. At least I can do that.

  2. For a safe place online to share your albums, movies, etc., try iCloud or SkyDrive, With the whole "cloud" technology moving quickly mainstream, you may find other services as well. Do you have a damaged photo that you want restored? I am pretty handy with photoshop, but some photos are just too challenging. I found "yesteryear" online for a military photo that had been ruined and was stuck to broken glass. I scanned it and sent it over. what came back was astonishing.
    I agree with you this is a very worthwhile venture, and I look forward to hearing about this project more.
    The best....d.

  3. Our family is doing this too. Some absolutely wonderful stuff but, oh, the horrors of those 70's clothes! Yellow, orange, pink and paisley...and yet there we stand, looking so proud of ourselves.

  4. This is something I definitely need to tackle. There is no one left to authenticate the photos, but I do have memories of my mother explaining various ones. I may need to just set aside a particular day each week and do nothing but scan and store photos. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  5. I'm thinking about digitalizing our photos too, but I've recently completed two family history projects.

    A few months ago I had all of our old family 8mm and Super 8mm home movies converted to DVD's. I had Costco do mine but there are others that do it as well. I ihad them make three sets of DVD's so I could give a copy to my brother and sister for Christmas.

    And I put together a long email outlining the homes we grew up in as a family. I used Google Earth and included 6 homes with stories about each one.

    Now I'm doing the same thing with my former homes since 1972, when I got married. My 35 year old daughter will get a history of every home she lived in until college.

    Karen Sawyer

  6. Zoom,

    I guess not knowing the truth about a particular photo allows us to fill in the blanks with whatever we might think, or hope, the truth to be…


    I actually did quite a bit with Photoshop on these photos. I'm no pro, but I was able to salvage a lot of photos. I probably should've mentioned that in the post.


    Yup, you have to look at these old photos with an old mindset, not a current one.


    I'm glad to hear you're taking on this task. Good luck!


    Good to you! If you don't do this now, all that information will be lost forever.

  7. I did this awhile ago and blogged about it. Big job!