Ask the Archivist: Digitally copying a family history binder

by Sally J.

in * How to SHARE Your Photographs (and the stories behind them), Free Articles / Blog

ASK THE ARCHIVIST is real questions from regular family archivists just like you. Would you like to see your question here? Email me.

Hi Sally,

I happened to find your interesting blog by just poking around on the Internet. My question doesn’t fit neatly into one of the broader topics.

Within the past week I came into possession of a family history binder that was created in the late 1980s. The family member who created it died in 1996. The binder is composed of several hundred 8 1/2″ x 11″ pages that are typewritten text only, as well as pages that have typewritten text next to photographs that were pasted with a glue stick.

Since I need to return this binder to the family member who loaned it to me, I wanted to digitize it and then create a hard copy for myself.

What I have done so far is digitize the text-only pages by scanning them at 150 or 300 dpi as JPGs (depending on the degree of non-typewritten text that is detailed), but I’m unsure how to proceed with the mixed text / photo pages. I could scan these pages as TIFFs, but the file sizes would be very large. Or, I could just scan as a black & white document as I have the text-only pages, and then scan the pictures separately, then cut and paste them in – but that would be for dozens of pages.

So, what I’m looking for is the quickest, easiest and best way to scan these mixed text / photo pages an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet at a time. Any thoughts on how to best proceed that would let me keep the binder and pages intact? If you could point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it.

Thanks in advance for any help you could provide.

Robert M.
Knoxville, TN



As with all digitization projects, you’ll have to choose at the outset between “quickest/easiest” and “best quality.”

For photographs, “best” means uncompressed TIFF files with a resolution of 300 dpi @ 100%. That will mean more storage space than if you saved your scans as JPEGs, but with the price of external hard drives so low — this certainly isn’t the financial hardship it was just a few years ago.

For mostly text items like typed notes or printed newspapers and magazine articles “best” looks a little different. My current workflow for analog items like this is to generate a high resolution jpg file for the slideshow or scrapbook “image” of the clipping.

Then I generate an OCR’d PDF from that file. The OCR part means that the entire digital file is more than just a picture of a newspaper clipping — it’s also a keyword-searchable text document.


Very, very neat trick. The software I use for that is called OCRKit and it might only be available for Mac. If you’re working in a Windows environment, there might be additional options.

Your plan to make your own hard copy of the binder is an excellent one. Consider this copy to be your long term preservation plan for the family history binder. There is safety in numbers, of course, so be sure to add the data to your other family history databases and filing systems.

Here’s the hybrid approach I recommend for your digitization project:

    • Scan each of the 8.5 x 11 sheets and save them as PDF files.
    • If you want them to be keyword-searchable (note: this does not work on handwriting, only typed or printed text) then run an OCR program on those PDFs. Or, if you’re in a Mac environment, scan them as high resolution jpgs and then run an OCR program over it.
  • Print a new hard copy of the binder so you have an additional copy that is not subject to digital deletion or being trapped on a dead drive.
  • Store your new sheets in a binder that is not made out of vinyl. If you like to use sheet protectors, be sure they are made of an inert plastic like polypropylene. Avoid cheap office supply sheet protectors.
  • Create a separate high res scan of any photograph you want to keep long term and/or reproduce as a photo. Save this file as an uncompressed TIFF.
  • Create a high quality print of each photo by uploading the digital to the commercial printer of your choice. I like Shutterfly because they offer the option of printing a caption on the back of each print at no extra charge. Why they don’t emphasize this feature is beyond me…
  • Use photo corners to attach each photo to its the corresponding sheet in the correct spot. You will be covering up the laser printer version of the same photo.


And, yes — I do recommend color scans for black and white photographs. Vintage prints are rarely black and white. There are gradations of color including some warm brown tones that you don’t want to lose.


Sally J.
The Practical Archivist

Question for Practical Archivist Readers: Have you tackled a project like this? Do you have an alternate solution? Let us know by using the comments section. Anonymous comments are allowed. Spam, as always, is not.

Do you have a question about how to take care of your family treasures? Email me.

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