How to Digitally Archive and Share Historical Photographs, Documents, and Audio Recordings

Introduction: Background, Purpose, and Example Archive Projects

The information on this website was originally prepared as a book and is presented in that format and level of detail. The optimal presentation would include publication both on a website and as a printed book. This website provides the entire contents. My intention is to also make a printed book available; however, that will take additional time.


Digital copies of historical photographs, documents, and audio recordings are the best way to both share and preserve historical items. Handling and displaying the original items cause wear and degradation. However, the items cannot be shared if they are protected from all degradation. Good digital copies allow unlimited sharing while also preserving the original items.

One major goal of this book is to encourage people to begin collecting and archiving photographs, documents, and recordings with readily available, inexpensive technology. The costs and benefits of using more expensive technology are described, as well as guidance on how and when less expensive technology is adequate. The methods for effective use of digital technology are described for both inexpensive and expensive options.

Creating and using digital copies of historical information requires a wide range of technical knowledge. The usual default settings for scanners, recorders, and software typically produce low quality results that have limited uses. However, going beyond the default settings opens an overwhelming array of options that can require months or years of study to understand.

A book that brings together the needed information to systematically guide users in a straightforward, concise way has not been available. This book attempts to provide the needed diverse practical guidance. This information is based on recommended practices developed by libraries, museums, and archives and my experience working with historical images, audio recordings, and slide shows as a serious hobby for over 12 years.

In the absence of a focused, readable source of information, I spent much time sorting through large amounts of complicated and often contradictory information and opinions. My early efforts required much trial and error learning. The recommendations by “professionals” involved complex, expensive technology that seemed unnecessary for much of what I wanted to do; however, there were no practical discussions of the options and tradeoffs for using less expensive and less complicated alternatives. As I gained more knowledge and improved technology, I spent significant time redoing work. I also regretted the poor results for some cases that could not be redone.

Another goal of this book is to describe how photographs, documents, and recordings can be archived electronically in a way that will be reliably accessible at least 50 years in the future. This includes not only older photographs and recordings that currently have historical value, but also recent ones that will be of historical interest to future generations. The 50-year timeframe brings into focus the importance of documentation. What should people at least two generations in the future know about a photograph? Photographs with good documentation will have much greater historical value than those without documentation.

The 50-year timeframe also brings into focus the limited value of propriety software and formats that require continuous upgrading to remain usable. Such software has a high probability of becoming obsolete and inaccessible within a decade. If electronic files can be maintained for 50 years, they probably can be maintained indefinitely. For an historical archive, the life of the electronic files, including documentation, must extend beyond the life of the person or people initially establishing the archive.

The chapters on audio recordings may be particularly useful because there are few sources of information on this topic. Audio recordings have great historical value and are relatively easy to obtain and archive, but are generally underappreciated. A straightforward presentation of technical information may encourage more widespread collection of historical audio recordings.

The ultimate purpose in preserving historical information is to share it with others. Historical information can be shared in many ways, particularly with the advent of the internet. However, different strategies and formats are needed for different types of presentation. This book describes methods and guidelines for preparing historical information for different types of presentation. Here too, methods are described that use inexpensive consumer level software as well as more expensive professional software.

The balance between history and art when presenting historical information is also addressed. Most books and tutorials on preparing photographs for presentation focus on enhancements that compromise historical accuracy. The distinction between art and history needs to be recognized, and restorations and enhancements made with awareness and appropriate methods.

Slide shows are a particularly effective way to present historical information and applicable software is readily available. However, there are virtually no sources of information on the strategies and methods for developing effective historical slide shows. The available software is often biased toward fast-moving, bouncy presentations about recent social events. That style is far from optimal for an historical presentation of unfamiliar information intended for older as well as younger audiences. The chapter on slide shows is intended to provide a foundation for presenting historical information in a way that is appropriate for diverse audiences.

Copyright and related legal matters are another important topic for which it is difficult to find practical information. Items in an historical archive may become inaccessible for legal reasons as well as for technical reasons. This is a much greater threat than most people realize, particularly after the person who created a photograph, document, or recording has died. The chapter on legal topics will hopefully provide a useful understanding of this complex topic, and motivate people to take basic steps to assure that historical information will be reliably accessible beyond their lifetimes.

The appendices provide practical information and recommendations on additional technical topics that are sometimes important. The practical discussion of color management may be very valuable to those who have found it difficult to sort through large amounts of complex technical details while trying to find useful information on this topic. The discussion includes simple, but little known, methods for learning what different image processing programs are actually doing. The appendix on batch processing of images can produce tremendous time-savings in certain situations. Other appendices describe the effective resolution of scanners and using cameras for archival digitization.

This book may be of value to both families and historical organizations, and particularly to those operating with limited budgets. Following the methods recommended here, a family historical archive will be preserved over the long-term and should be suitable for transfer to an historical organization. Perhaps more important, the digital copies can be widely shared among interested people either electronically or with printed copies. This minimization of wear, damage, and possibility of loss for the original items is an essential strategy for long-term preservation.

History in general and photographs in particular can be very meaningful for people. An image can reveal much about people and how they lived that will be of great interest to others. Historical photographs can have a key role in establishing a sense of identity and community. Learning about the difficulties people faced and overcame in the past can inspire resilience and appreciation of the present.

Some of my experiences with historical photographs and audio recordings are summarized below. These illustrate the diverse value of historical photographs and recordings as well as the range and evolution of relevant technology.

First Historical Project

My initial historical project was very personal. My father died in an accident when my mother was pregnant with me. The accident was two days after my sister’s first birthday. Of course, I never knew my father. During childhood my sister and I often heard stories about my father and we had numerous photographs of him, but these scattered pieces of information did not give us a sense of who he was or what he was like.

When the photographs of my father were over 50 years old, some were becoming worn and faded. Many of the more interesting photographs were loose in old cigar boxes and had no notes on them. Information about the photographs depended on my mother’s memory. I realized that if these photographs were going to be preserved, they needed to be electronically archived.

I started scanning the photographs on my combination printer/scanner. I knew virtually nothing about scanning and used the default settings. The resulting images seemed ok. I decided to make the names of the output files start with the approximate date of the photographs. That put the photographs in chronological order. Then, as I viewed the images sequentially, I began to get a sense of a story. I began thinking about adding information as text, like in a slide show. Then I thought that it might be better to record my mother telling stories about my father and play that with the relevant photos. Shortly after that, I began wondering if there was music that my father liked that could be played along with the photographs.

The decisive turning point was when I asked my mother if she knew of any music that my father liked and she said “Oh sure. I have some of those songs. Would you like to hear them?” I had never discussed the music my father liked, let alone listened to any. At that point there was no turning back. The archiving project was inevitably evolving into a serious slide show. Investigation of software that makes slide shows revealed that ProShow Gold was one of the best and could handle the features needed for this slide show.

After several months of evening and weekend work with much trial and error exploration, I had a slide show of my father’s life. It covered from childhood up to and including the fatal accident. It included photographs and slides with text information. The audio associated with relevant photographs included my mother telling stories, me reading excerpts from letters he had written, and some of his favorite music.

My sister had the same reaction to the slide show as I did: “For the first time, I feel like I know my father.” The scattered, isolated pieces of information were put together into a very moving story. The story revealed a young man from a large relatively poor family in a small town. He traveled the world as a soldier in World War II and returned home, eventually marrying a young woman from the same town who had also traveled the world as a nurse during the war. They were very happy in the prime of life when he suddenly and unexpectedly died, leaving behind a pregnant wife and one year old daughter. Some relatives who saw the slide show cried.

The actual electronic processing of the photographs and audio was very amateurish. I tried to improve the photographs using the image-editing program that came bundled with my computer and frankly did not know what I was doing. Among other things, I sometimes did repeated editing of JPEG files, which results in degradation of the images. The idea of sharpening the images to compensate for the loss of sharpness with scanning was far beyond my knowledge.

However, one of the major lessons from this experience is that the technical details of the photographs and audio are not very important when they are used in context of a story. The impact of the story is a result of the full multimedia experience, particularly the music. The photographs and audio can have relatively low technical quality as long as the meaning in context of the story is clear. The human brain is very good at filling in and correcting details to make the story consistent and complete.

Another noteworthy lesson is that a slide show can be an effective way to get to know a person you have never met. This can be of great historical value for learning about relatives or others who have had interesting lives.

Second Historical Project

After completing the slideshow about my father, it was time to archive my personal photographs. I had taken 35 mm photos for decades and some were very important to me. Most were slides and they were deteriorating. I had lived in North Carolina for many years and the high humidity was very detrimental to slides. My scanner would not handle slides. Investigation revealed that the best way to scan 35 mm slides and negatives was a dedicated film scanner. One of the lowest priced dedicated scanners was a Plustek 7200, which I purchased. It came with the SilverFast SE scanning software.

The new 35 mm scanner did not have simple default options like I had used for the paper photographs and the array of options was overwhelming. The instructions described the needed “workflow” and I spent much time trying to figure out histograms and curves. Through much trial and error, I managed to slowly get to the point that the output images eventually were usually acceptable. However, there were some cases when I could not obtain an image that I found acceptable, no matter how long I worked. I looked for guidance that was reasonably easy to understand but did not find any. It seemed to me that it should not be this complicated.

For many of the slides, I made small text files with notes about the slide. The date of the photograph was again used in the name of the file, which put them in chronological order. I wanted an image viewer that would show both the photos and the text files so I could browse both in sequence. After some searching, the free IrfanView program appeared to have the features that were needed. After working with the program, I discovered that it would also make simple slide shows including text files and music. One option for output was an executable (.exe) file that could be run standalone on a computer.

I made standalone slideshows for each decade of my life with photographs, information in text, and relevant music. These slide shows are the story of my life for those who are interested in family history or my personal history.

Recording Historical Stories

When my mother was preparing to move from her home into a retirement center I spent many days helping her decide what to do with the things she had accumulated over the years. The various items stimulated her to describe many interesting historical memories that I had not heard before and would never be able to remember. At the suggestion of a friend, I obtained a small digital voice recorder at a local discount office supply store. As we were going though the many boxes and drawers, I set the recorder by her and left it on for hours at a time. Later I went through the recordings and extracted segments for individual stories and put them is small separate files with relevant dates and names. These recorded stories have been and will be very valuable to future generations.

However, the recording quality was poor and often did not accurately represent her voice. After some research, I obtained an Olympus DS series digital voice recorder that produced much better results. Later I obtained for myself or for others several other digital recorders and have made many hours of historical recordings in various contexts.

The Yoder Project

A subsequent historical project required a major evolution of my knowledge. Susan, a friend, lived in the small Amish and Mennonite community of Yoder, Kansas. The town has a very strong appreciation of its history. Susan’s father Vernon had become the de facto town historian and had a collection of photographs about the history of the town. Copies of various photographs from his collection were displayed at various businesses. Vernon kept the photographs in a cardboard box. He often loaned the box to people and I suspected that he did not always get all of the photographs back. The photographs were deteriorating due to age and handling. I thought it was important to electronically archive the photographs and volunteered for the task.

These photographs had greater historical significance than the family photographs I had worked with before. These were of value not only to the town, but also to county and state historical associations, as well as to those interested in Amish communities and the history of the western U.S. These photographs needed to be archived in a much more professional manner than I had done previously.

I knew the Denver Public Library had a large, well-funded project to digitally archive tens of thousands of historical photographs and found documents on the internet describing their practices and the related best practices of the Western States Digital Standards Group. I also started studying books such as Digital Restoration From Start to Finish by Ctein and Photoshop Restoration & Retouching by Katrin Eismann. However, these books focused on photograph “restoration” using Adobe Photoshop and often described manipulations that unacceptably compromised the historical integrity of the photograph according to the standards used for the Denver Library project. Also, these books focused on preparing a print for an individual client using expensive, complicated professional technology, consistent with the authors’ businesses. That purpose was very different from developing a long-term archive of master images suitable for many historical uses. Overall, the photograph restoration books were of limited value for this project—but can be of value for learning to use Photoshop on a professional level.

I began scanning the Yoder photographs using as guidance the best practices of the Western States Digital Standards Group. I needed a better image processing program and obtained Corel Paint Shop Pro X2 (version 12) as a cost effective step at that time. Paint Shop Pro appeared to have the basic features needed for the historical photographs I was working with and allowed me to greatly expand my knowledge of photograph editing. However, it was prone to freezing at inopportune moments.

After scanning many photographs, I visited the group working on the historical photograph collection at the Denver Public Library. That was a very informative session. Among the many things I learned was that the scanning standards had been revised recently and now recommended 16 bits per channel rather than the 8 bits per channel that I had been using (later chapters will explain these terms). My scanner would not do 16 bits per channel and Paint Shop Pro did not fully handle images with 16 bits per channel. At about the same time, I realized that I needed to be able to reliably print photographs for the Yoder project, but was unable to do that. Printing involved numerous frustrating trial and error adjustments and many printouts for each image. When I finally got an acceptable print, I could not easily replicate it. The solution appeared to be color management, however I discovered that Paint Shop Pro did not fully implement color management and it was very difficult to obtain information on what it would and would not do. It was time to upgrade my operation.

I purchased an Epson V500 scanner that would do 16 bits per channel and compared scans with 16 and 8 bits per channel to understand whether rescanning was worth the effort. The Denver Library was scanning new photographs at 16 bits per channel but was not rescanning the thousands of photographs previously scanned at 8 bits. I rescanned some of the Yoder photographs that were most faded or would need major adjustments to make a good image for display.

I also purchased Adobe Photoshop CS3. For my purposes, Photoshop was relatively easy and intuitive after using Paint Shop Pro. Trying to understand color management was one of the most challenging tasks. The available information seemed to be unnecessarily complicated and often irrelevant to what I needed. When I finally understood it well enough to make purchases, what I needed was actually straightforward. I obtained an X-rite Eye-One Display profiler for my monitor. For my printer I downloaded a certain image from a website, printed it, and sent the printout to the website owner who then emailed me the printer profiles and instructions for installing them. Setting up color management with Photoshop was easy once I had the profiles. After this basic (and simple in retrospect) color management was in place, printing photographs was no problem.

The next step in the evolution of this project was that as Vernon and his wife were moving out of their house into a retirement center, boxes of photograph negatives were found in the basement storm room. These included negatives for many of the Yoder photographs. The Epson V500 scanner would handle these medium format negatives. I was curious to see if scans of negatives actually produced better results than scans from paper photographs as described in several sources. The answer was a resounding yes. Due to the significantly increased clarity, letters on signs in some of the photographs could be read from the negative that could not be read with the paper print. In other cases, the paper print had been cropped and the removed area was interesting. We found negatives for some cases when the only paper photograph was badly damaged. In addition, there were negatives for photographs that I had not seen. Apparently the paper photographs had been lost over the years. I scanned the negatives and replaced the images from the paper prints. This was the third scanning for some of the photographs.

The final stage of this project was when Vernon’s oldest son provided the 35 mm slides that Vernon’s father had taken over the years. About 500 selected slides were in carrousels and a much larger number had been thrown into a large box. I looked at all of them and found many that were relevant for the history project and many others that would be of interest to the family. I tried scanning the slides with the Epson V500 scanner and, as reported by others, the quality was significantly lower than scans with the Plustek dedicated film scanner. However, I was not looking forward to all the trial and error effort I had previously experienced with the Plustek and the fact that I had been unable to get some slides to come out as I wanted.

Investigation of other options found that the Nikon LS5000 ED 35 mm film scanner was reported to be one of the best options even though it cost about six times more than the Plustek. For this project a major upgrade seemed appropriate. The Nikon turned out to be a very good investment. It gave significantly better scan output with vastly less effort. In particular, the infrared Digital ICE scratch and dust correction worked amazingly well, as did the feature for handling film grain. Of course, then I wanted to rescan many of my personal slides to get the better quality.

Documentation of the photographs was an important part of this project. I soon realized that documentation for each photograph would determine how valuable the photographs were in the future. The Denver Public Library’s description of their practices included documentation for the photographs. I used that as initial guidance, but sometimes added additional interesting information. I spent more time obtaining information about people, situations, and the approximate dates of photographs than scanning and restoring the photographs. I also generated many hours of audio recordings as part of this project.

Lauries Project

Laurie, a long-term professional colleague and friend, wanted to create a slide show about her father as part of her usual Christmas DVD for the family. She normally created a DVD with videos of gatherings and events of the extended family during the year and gave copies as Christmas gifts. Her father had died in the last year and she wanted to include a slide show with photographs of him. I volunteered to help.

The slide show was severely limited by the lack of photographs of her father. Her parents had kept the family photographs in the basement of their home and the photographs were virtually all ruined during a flooding problem. They had only a few undamaged photographs that had been in other locations. They had kept some of the water-damaged photographs, but these primarily served to emphasize how sad it was that the photographs were lost. In particular, they had a severely damaged booklet of the wedding photos of her parents. In collecting photographs for this project, Laurie found a couple of rolls of 35 mm black and white film. One roll was tightly coiled and wrapped with deteriorated elastic. She brought them to me without attempting to open them and hoped to find out what they were. No one in the family knew what the film was or remembered that it existed.

The film was for her parent’s wedding photographs and for some family gatherings in the early years after the marriage. And, these were wonderful photographs. Many were sharp and perfectly exposed, not the usual family snapshots. Someone had a good eye for group photographs because a couple of the photographs had great detail capturing the personalities and interactions of the people. Laurie was among the two generations of her extended family that had never seen these photographs and had never seen their parents or grandparents when they were younger. The family was deeply moved by these photographs.

I had never scanned black and white 35 mm film and found that there were significant differences. The Digital ICE scratch and dust technology does not work with black and white film. Also, grain tends to be worse and plug-in enhancements for Photoshop are the best way to handle it. My usual time consuming efforts to explore options were limited by time constraints with the Christmas deadline. Here too, the quality of the scans was not a major issue for display in this slide show, but was more apparent in prints. Once again I needed to rescan after developing better methods. Also, the sharp group photographs in particular were appropriate for Ken Burns-style slow, close-up panning in the slide show. This can be done with the ProShow Gold program, but it is somewhat awkward for extensive movement. I decided to obtain ProShow Producer, a more advanced slideshow program.

Need for a Book

Laurie is one of several people who have asked about books that describe how to digitally archive historical information. Given her family’s experience with paper photographs she is very serious about electronically archiving and distributing the remaining photographs. Unfortunately, I have had to tell her and others that as far as I know no such book is available.

Creating and working with digital historical photographs, documents, and recordings involves a large amount of technical information and details. It is more than a person can remember, particularly when he or she is not working with it every day. A book that describes the processes and key details for creating and working with digital historical information would be a valuable reference. Too often I have had to rediscover information that I had forgotten and that was not easily available.

The software that comes with most scanners and computers can be used to develop historical archives. However, trying to understand and sort through the many options can be frustrating and tedious. It is very difficult to get started without guidance on what options and settings to use, and on a useful workflow or sequence of steps.

This book covers a wide range of topics and is not intended to be a manual on any particular software or hardware. I do not consider myself a professional expert on each of the topics covered in this book, but I do have experience and a useful knowledge of the topics. This book is intended to help people (a) get started using available technology for historical purposes, (b) sort through the relevant options, (c) avoid pitfalls, and (d) develop a productive workflow. Hopefully it will minimize or eliminate the time a person spends feeling overwhelmed and frustrated trying to figure out what to do with a large number of options. This book is intended to be used in conjunction with the manuals and help systems that come with specific software.

Descriptions are provided for the basic steps, settings, and terminology to begin using common digital technology for historical archiving. For most topics, methods are described for using inexpensive consumer level technology as well as more expensive advanced technology. More details are provided for topics that are not well explained in the manuals or that require adaptation for historical purposes. This book does not contain many screenshots from specific software as found in books that are intended to be manuals for the software. The software described here is for Windows computers. Some of the key software is available for a Mac and other software with similar features is available for both PCs and Macs.

The diverse software applications discussed in this book are being and will be updated; however, the basic functions used for historical work generally do not change with updates. The exceptions are that scanning and slide show software may—and hopefully will—improve significantly with upgrades. The use of specific scanning and slide show software is described in the Guidance on Using Scanning Software and Guidance on using Slide Show Software at

How to Use this Book

Some chapters contain information that will benefit virtually all readers and other chapters are more for reference purposes when planning the technical activities discussed in the chapter.

Virtually all readers interested in working with historical items will benefit from reading Chapter 1 on basic principles of archiving, Chapter 4 on documenting historical items, and Chapter 9 on legal rights.

For the other chapters, the short section of key points at the beginning of each chapter can be read initially and the full chapter read when planning the activities discussed in the chapter. These chapters contain large amounts of technical details that will be useful primarily when actually working on the tasks. This strategy is appropriate for Chapter 2 on making digital images, Chapter 3 on adjusting tone and color in images, Chapter 5 on preparing and displaying digital images, Chapter 6 on making audio recordings, Chapter 7 on preparing and presenting audio recordings, and Chapter 8 on making historical slide shows. The appendices can also be read when planning the activities discussed in each appendix. Chapters 3, 5, and 7, and the appendices describe how to produce effects with consumer level technology and also with more advanced technology. Readers may want to skip the sections that do not pertain to the type of technology they are using.

The website at will have updated versions of the appendices and software guidance documents, as well as addition information.


[Version of 5/22/2012]