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

Chapter 1. Basic Principles of Archiving Photographs and Documents

Key Points.

·        Digital archives can greatly enhance the preservation and sharing of historical information.

·        A historical photograph archive intended to be accessible for at least 50 years will be handled differently than a personal photograph collection.

·        The master images in a historical archive are intended to be suitable for many different uses for decades in the future. The documentation for an item perpetually stays with the master image.

·        Working copies of the master images are made when adapting the images for particular uses.

·        At least three copies of the archive should be maintained, including at least one copy at a different location. Distributing copies of the archive to others can achieve this result.

·        With current technology, the digital files in the archive should be transferred to new storage media at least approximately every two to four years. This needs to be done even when the person establishing the archive is no longer able to do it.

·        For family archives, a good strategy for long-term preservation of the original items after the digital images have been made is to donate the items to a museum, library, or archive.


Why Make Digital Archives?

The main challenge with historical items is to preserve the original items while also sharing the items with others. For traditional paper photographs and documents the goal of preservation directly conflicts with the goal of sharing. Handling, displaying, and reproducing paper photographs and documents inevitably results in wear and degradation. For example, light causes photographs to fade, particularly ultraviolet light that is present in sunlight and in typical fluorescent lights. Although the adverse effects from one day of exposure to light are minor, the cumulative effects over a period of years are significant. The best solution is to make copies of the items for display and distribution. The copies can be displayed and distributed while the original is preserved in a controlled environment.

With digital archives the goals of preservation and sharing are mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Display, handling, and distribution of prints from digital copies can be done without adverse effects to the original item. Copies can easily be made, distributed, and replaced. A copy of a copy has no loss of quality. That is very different from paper and film where a copy of a copy results in significant loss of detail.

Another valuable advantage of digital archives is that an exact copy of the archive easily can be kept in multiple locations. This virtually eliminates the risk of catastrophic loss due to fires, theft, floods, or natural disasters. The threat of catastrophic loss is a fundamental factor for paper and film items. For family photographs and documents, a digital archive also eliminates the threat that items can be lost or misplaced.

1.1 Historical Archive Versus Personal Photograph Collection

The primary purpose of a personal collection is to maintain photographs for oneself, while the purpose of a historical archive is to maintain photographs for others. These different purposes result in several basic differences between a historical archive and a personal photograph collection. A personal photograph collection typically includes many photographs that are primarily of interest only to the owner and that may be similar to other photographs in the collection. A historical archive will typically have a much smaller number of photographs and include only the best one when several are similar.

The images in a historical archive will usually have more extensive documentation and include only images that merit the effort for this documentation. Information about the photographs in a personal collection usually resides primarily in the memory of the owner, and is often lost when the owner dies. A historical archive is intended to avoid such a loss of information. Documentation of legal rights is rarely an issue with a personal photograph collection, but is very important for a historical archive that may have many different uses for decades in the future.

A photograph organizing program or database such as Adobe Lightroom will often be used to organize and document a personal collection. However, specialized propriety software such as Lightroom is not appropriate for the long-term documentation and organization of a family historical archive. Proprietary software limits the ability to distribute the archive and cannot be expected to be reliably accessible in 50 years—or in 15 years.

A personal photograph collection usually is not maintained as a collection after the initial owner can no longer manage it. A family historical archive should be distributed to others who will continue preserving copies of it.

A historical photograph archive is generally a subset of a personal collection and is separate from the personal collection.

1.2 What to Include in a Historical Archive

Given that a limited number of items will be included in a digital historical archive, criteria need to be established for determining what is included in a particular archive project. Different criteria are appropriate for different projects. Several factors are usually considered and priority is given to items that are high on most or all of the factors. The factors that are usually considered include:

·        Purpose. An item must have value for the purpose of the archive. The purpose of the archive could be specific, such as information about a particular person, or more general, such as information about an extended family or a geographic region.

·        Uniqueness. An item that contains unique historical information will be considered favorably for inclusion in an archive. On the other hand, an item that is very similar to another item in the archive will be considered less favorably.

·        Quality. An item that is in good condition and high quality will be considered favorably. An item of poor quality, such as a photograph that is out of focus or that has irretrievable damage to basic content, will be considered unfavorably.

·        Documentation. An item with good information for documentation will be considered favorably. Items with little or no information for documentation will be considered less favorably.

·        Legal Rights. Items with clear legal rights will be considered favorably. Items that have legal risks will be considered unfavorably.

·        Privacy. An item that is suitable for public display and distribution will be considered favorably. An item of a more person nature that may be inappropriate for public dissemination would be considered unfavorably.


The decision to include or exclude an item will depend on how the item rates on these factors and on the goals and resources for the archive project. For example, I scanned about a third of the letters my mother wrote home during World War II while she was an Army nurse on a hospital ship. She wrote a large number of letters and the ones that were scanned covered all noteworthy events and were representative of the others. My judgment was that the other letters did not contain enough unique information to make them worth the effort to digitally archive them. However, another family or a historical association may choose to digitally archive all letters in a situation like this.

Items with little or no documentation often present a dilemma. Including them in a project may result in useful information being obtained in the future. However, the effort and cost to maintain a large number of poorly documented items must be balanced against the likelihood that useful information will ultimately be obtained.

People may have differing opinions about what is private family information that is not appropriate for widespread distribution. Family members are advised to discuss this topic to avoid surprises and possible conflicts. Over a period of several decades, the items in a historical archive will likely be displayed or distributed to people outside the family, including on the internet. Items that are appropriate only for family or limited circulation should be kept in a personal collection or perhaps a special family archive that has limited distribution (and less historical value and greater risk of loss). My experience has been that people tend to be more concerned about the privacy of their parents than their grandparents, and concerns about distribution of information outside the family are greatly reduced over time. Open discussion of these topics may be a valuable part of developing guidelines for what is included and excluded on a particular historical archive project.

1.3 Museum Versus Family Historical Archives

Photograph archives for museums or other historical associations should be suitable for historical research that examines the details in an image at high magnification. Figures 1.1 to 1.3 show examples of information extracted from detailed examination of a photograph. Significant amounts of valuable historical information can be lost without adequate detail in the digital image.





Historical photp Beachy Store Yoder, KS about 1933

Figure 1.1. Photograph inside the Beachy Store in Yoder, Kansas about 1933.

This photograph was taken by Dave Beachy, the owner of the store. Copyright is held by his heirs through 2060. Permission has been granted for this digital image and works derived from it to be used by anyone and for any purpose.





Close-up of historical photo Beachy Store Yoder, KS about 1933

Figure 1.2 A close-up of the Post Office area in the store shows signs that are very different than would be found in Post Offices today and reveal aspects of life in the 1930s.




Close-up of historical photo Beachy Store Yoder, KS about 1933

Figure 1.3. A close-up of the back of the store reveals beer signs. The fact that the store in this Amish community sold beer in the early 1930s had long been forgotten.





A historical archive for family use may involve less effort and less expense to capture details in the photographs. However, it is difficult to predict what uses will be made of the photographs over a 50-year timeframe. Historical slideshows of family photographs often zoom in to show details in small sections of a picture. Or, some of the family photographs may be of interest to a historical association or to other researchers who need the maximum detail.

The basic approach recommended here for a family photograph archive is to use methods that capture most, and when possible all, of the usable detail in photographs. However, if cost and/or time constraints prevent the use of such methods, then simply do the best you can to archive the photographs. The people 50 years in the future will appreciate whatever you can provide, particularly compared to the alternative of no historical photographs.

1.4 Master Images and Working Copies

The master images retained in the historical archive may initially come from a scanner or from a digital camera. Master images usually have certain processing done during scanning and additional processing with image editing software, as described in Chapters 2 and 3. The documentation for a historical item should be associated with the master image.

A copy of the master image is made when the image is prepared for use. This working copy is optimized for the particular use. As described in Chapter 5, images optimized for printing will have different file sizes, formats, and sharpening than an image optimized for display on the internet. The images used in a slideshow may need different parameters. The working copies allow the original master image to remain fully intact for other uses.

This strategy of maintaining master images is appropriate for family historical archives as well as for museum archives. This strategy recognizes that the optimal preparation of an image for a certain use will often be different than for other uses. Adapting the master image for one particular use compromises other uses and also compromises the potential for someone with more advanced technology and skills to work with the image in the future. Working copies of master images are the best strategy given the wide range of potential uses over a 50-year timeframe.

One or more working copies may be archived in addition to the master image, but that is optional. For example, a copy that is optimized for printing may be kept as well as a copy optimized for internet display. Keeping a working copy in the archive can be particularly useful when significant effort was needed to prepare the image for a particular use.

1.5 Organizing an Archive and Naming Files

There is great flexibility in how the image files are organized on the computer. Certain principles are useful, but these can be modified for particular situations.

·        Keep different projects in different folders. For example, I have separate folders for my family archives and for other projects such as the Yoder project. Within the family folder, the archives for my life and the archives for my parents are kept in separate subfolders and I consider them separate projects.

·        Within a project, it is often useful to make subfolders for different time periods. The time periods can be whatever make sense for the particularly project. For example, the first three time periods for my mother are “Childhood”, “WWII” (world war II), and “Marriage”.

·        Within a time period, make separate folders for photographs and documents. Documents include letters, announcements, diplomas, marriage licenses, and anything else that is text or writing. Other folders may also be useful, such as for audio recordings.

·        Put the working images in separate folders from the master images. I usually have the working images in a separate working area rather than as a subfolder of the master images.


There is also great flexibility in naming the files in the archive. The strategy that I have found most useful is to start the file name with the year, month, and day the photograph was taken or the document was created. For example, 1919_12_06_ is used for December 6, 1919. If the month and day are unknown, those are left out. If the year is an estimate that is uncertain, then I use the year and “c” for circa or “a” for approximately. For example, 1919c_ is used for a photograph that is estimated to have been taken in approximately 1919. Putting the date in the file name can be a burden when the date changes due to new information. However, my experience has been that the overall benefits are worth the inconvenience. Other information is added to the date to uniquely specify the file name. I try to choose brief information (usually one to three words) that gives an idea of the contents of the file, but an arbitrary identifier such as a serial number will also work. Large collections for organizations usually are managed with image databases that have arbitrary identifiers. File names are not intended to have detailed information about an image or to be used for searching the contents of images. The optimal strategy for searching images to find certain content is to search the image documentation that is described in Chapter 4.

Simple identifiers are needed for related files. When writing on the back of a photograph is scanned, I use the same file name for the back as used for the photograph, but add “_b”. Similarly, if there are multiple pages to a letter, I add “_b”, “_c”, etc. to the file names for the sequential images. Various other useful codes can be developed as needed.

Historical organizations usually have their own specialized strategies for naming and organizing files. If a digital archive is donated to a historical organization, the organization can be expected to change the file names to fit their systems.

1.6 Backup and Migration of the Archive

A backup copy of a digital archive must be made because the disk drive on a computer can irretrievably fail at any time. I had a hard disk failure several years ago and know a person who had a complete disk failure twice in the past few years. Also, backup copies are important protection from viruses and other malware that are a major threat to a computer system. Of course, backup copies of the entire computer system should also be made in addition to the historical archives.

Backups should be done frequently and migrated to new media. The media for storing the backup changes as technology advances. A few years ago I used CDs and DVDs for backup. Now I use external disk drives. A historical archive must be migrated to new media as technology changes. The idea that a person can make one backup copy that will last for decades is not applicable. The backup copy can fail and also has a high probability of becoming obsolete media. For an organization with a professionally managed computer network, backups will normally be handled by an Information Technology Department and should meet the criteria described here.

At least three copies of an archive should be maintained, and preferably more. At least one of the copies should be in a different location. The minimum copies of my historical archives typically include:

·        The primary copy on my computer,

·        A backup copy on an external drive by the computer,

·        Another backup copy on an external drive that is in a safe deposit box at a bank,

·        One or more copies that have been given to people who are interested in the archive.


My basic workflow is to copy the new or revised files from my computer to the external drive anytime I have done work that would require significant effort to reproduce if the disk failed. Often this will be done at the end of the day, but it can be done one or more times during the day when I am busy. A task on the computer is not completed until the backup has been made. The external drive in the safe deposit box is updated about weekly when many changes are being made and less frequently at other times. The external drive in the safe deposit box can be rotated with the external drive at the computer. The updated external drive at the computer is put in the safe deposit box and the drive in the safety deposit box is used at the computer until the next switch. This reduces the trips to the bank and also assures that there is always a copy in the bank. At present, I have two external drives for rotation at the bank and a third larger, faster drive that is always connected to the computer.

I do not use and do not trust the software for automatically synchronizing (copying files between) an external drive and computer drive. This type of software usually comes with an external drive and will be installed on the computer unless the user is careful when the external drive is first connected. The synchronization software uses computer resources and different software is used with different external drives. A computer can have resources taken up for external drives that are no longer used. When an external drive is first connected to my computer, I avoid installing any software from the drive and then move all the software on the drive to a temporary folder. After the drive has been used for while with no problem, the temporary folder and files are deleted.

When copying new or updated files to a backup drive, I often copy the entire folder and subfolders that have the modified files. After renaming the corresponding folder on the backup drive (by adding 0 to the folder name), the current version of the folder is copied to the backup drive. After the new copy has completed successfully, the renamed folder is deleted. This minimizes risks and keeps the files updated without needing synchronization software.

Putting backups on an internet site is an evolving technology that may be useful. I consider that appropriate for one of the backups, but would also keep another local backup.

I also backup my entire computer hard drive using the free Macrium Reflect backup software. This is mainly to be able to restore the full system if the computer disk fails. I have many programs and customizations that would take many days to reinstall. The Macrium Reflect backup images are kept on the external drives along with the other files.

Backup media such as external disk drives should be replaced every two to four years. This reasonably assures that the media will be replaced before it fails and before it becomes obsolete. Longer time periods before replacement are appropriate if many copies have been made and distributed. Also the time to replacement can be adjusted according to the reliability of the media.

1.7 Preserving the Original Items

After the digital copies have been made, the original items will normally be stored in a way that preserves the historic value of the item. As discussed earlier, the use of digital copies can greatly reduce the deterioration of the original items that results from handling and display. Damage from handling and display is typically the most common and most severe damage. However, the storage environment can also be a significant source of damage.

High and fluctuating temperatures and humidity are another common source of degradation for photographs and film. High temperature and humidity cause chemical deterioration and also promote the growth of mold and mildew. Low humidity and fluctuating temperature and humidity cause cracks and peeling. Humidity and temperature interact. The adverse effects of high humidity are worse at high temperature.

The optimal temperature and humidity are different for different materials. The maximum temperature and optimal range for relative humidity for long-term storage of various materials are: for black and white photographic prints, 64° F and 30% - 50%; for color prints, 36° F and 30% - 40%; for black and white film with a cellulose ester base, 36° F and 30% - 50%; for black and white film with a polyester base, 70° F and 20% - 50%; for color film, 27° F and 20% - 40%; for paper documents, 72° F and 40% - 55%;. Ideally, the fluctuations in temperature will be less than 2 degrees and fluctuations in relative humidity will be less than 5%.

Significant expertise and resources are needed to provide the optimal conditions. In addition to the engineering design and maintenance of environmentally controlled vaults, the transfer of items in and out of cold storage causes a major fluctuation in temperature that must be minimized and handled with proper procedures. Professional level books such as by Rizenthaler and Vogt-O’Connor (2006) and Lavédrine (2003) are appropriate sources for those who want to work at this level.

For those without the resources for environmentally controlled vaults, compromises must be made. The highest priority is to keep temperatures below 75° F and relative humidity below 60%. Temperatures closer to 68° F and relative humidity between 30% and 40% are much better. Basements with high humidity and attics with large fluctuations of temperature and humidity must be avoided. Also locations near heating and cooling vents, in direct sunlight, or next to outside walls should be avoided. Locations with polluting fumes such as from cleaning products should also be avoided. A closet in an air-conditioned room may be a good location. Maureen Taylor (2010) describes how some household freezers can be used to store materials like color photographs and negatives that will inevitably deteriorate without cold storage.

Containers for Storing the Original Items

The containers used to store photographic materials are also a potentially significant source of deterioration. Typical cardboard boxes, file folders, envelopes, and plastic containers release acidic gases and other chemicals that cause photographic materials to deteriorate. These chemical reactions occur slowly and may not be noticed over a relatively short time period. They also adversely interact with environmental conditions—for example, the effects of the acidic gases are worse at high temperatures.

Archival envelopes and boxes that meet the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) set by the International Standards Organization (ISO) are optimal for long-term storage of photographic materials. The terms acid-free and archival are often used for materials that do not meet the PAT standards. The best practice is to use items that have specifically passed the PAT.

The ideal strategy is to put each photograph, negative, slide, or document in a separate enclosure to reduce abrasive contact and chemical interactions between items. Separate enclosures are particularly needed for negatives. Paper photographs can be carefully combined in an enclosure if resources are limited. These enclosures are stored in archival boxes. Ideally, negatives and paper prints will be kept in separate boxes because the negatives can release gases that affect paper photographs.

The most common enclosures for items that are frequently examined are clear envelopes, sleeves, or photo pages made from uncoated polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. If these plastics are coated, they may not meet the PAT standards. Clear plastic has the major advantage that the items are protected during handling and can be examined without being removed from the enclosure. However, a plastic envelope may confine any gases that are released by the item and this can be detrimental for items such as most black and white negatives from the 1900s. A plastic sleeve that is open on both ends may reduce this problem.

Professional archives often prefer paper envelopes rather than plastic for items that are infrequently handled. Paper allows gases released by the item to escape. Also paper enclosures can be buffered with chemicals that neutralize acidic gases. A few years ago buffered storage paper was recommended for use only with certain photographic materials, but now is recommended for all photographic materials (according to Rizenthaler and Vogt-O’Connor, 2006).

The costs for materials meeting the PAT standards can be high, but lower prices can be found. The typical prices for PAT quality plastic envelopes at well-known archive supply outlets in 2011 were $1 to $2 per envelope. However, a package of 100 polypropylene envelopes that met the PAT standards could be purchased for about $7 from the Bags Unlimited Internet store. Cardboard boxes meeting the PAT standards were in the range of $12 to $25 for one box. I expect that prices for boxes will also decrease significantly as demand and competition increase.

Practical Options for Preserving the Originals

Given the cost and effort to obtain even minimal preservation conditions for photographic materials, the practical question must be asked: Is the benefit worth the cost and effort? This question is particularly relevant for a family collection after archival digital images have been made that will serve virtually all purposes. For me it is much easier and more reliable to manage the digital archive than it would be to create and maintain the constant temperature and humidity needed for long-term preservation of the original items. And, even if I developed and maintained a place with the needed conditions for preserving the original items, I would not expect others to assume the burden of maintaining those conditions after my death. For comparison, my digital archives have been and will be distributed to others, and will continue beyond my lifetime.

With this background in mind, my thoughts on the practical options for handling the original items in a family archive are:

·        The first choice is to donate the original items to a museum, library, or archive and let the professionals handle long-term preservation. If the items ever need to be examined again or re-digitized, they will be available. The items will be preserved beyond the donor’s lifetime. In addition to preserving the items, a museum or library will make them available to others. However, one caveat is that a small museum or library may not have the facilities, resources, and expertise to properly preserve historical items. In particular, small museums that focus on having all items on display may be worse for preservation than keeping the items in a closet at home. Also, some items may not be of interest to a museum, archive or library.

·        Another option is to pay an archival storage facility to store the items. Maureen Taylor (2010) offers suggestions on implementing this option. In addition to significant on-going costs, this option has the problem of what to do when the person who is paying for the storage dies. Is there someone else who will assume the responsibility and cost of continuing to preserve the items? For a limited number of small items, safe deposit boxes in banks usually have a stable environment that may be suitable.

·        The third option is to do what you reasonably can to preserve the original items and recognize that they may deteriorate over time if optimal conditions are not utilized. If the items have been digitally archived, the deterioration does not pose risks of complete loss. Also, perhaps someone else in the family would be interested in the items and has better storage facilities.

·        If no one else wants the original items and you do not want to undertake the effort to preserve them, the last option is to discard the original items. However, it will be rare that items are appropriate for a digital historical archive but are not of sufficient historical value to keep the originals. Giving the items to a person or an organization that may not be able to properly preserve them would be preferable to putting the items in the trash.


Some people may be hesitant to donate items to a historical organization because they want a tangible object to hold in their hands. They feel that electronic copies are too abstract for their personal uses. Chapter 5 describes how to print and display photographs. I think the majority of people will find that these printed photographs meet their need to have a tangible object, and in fact, are preferable to the smaller, faded originals.

1.8 Plan for when You Cannot Manage Your Historical Collection

It is worth reiterating that a person who has a historical collection needs to plan for the inevitable time when he or she can no longer manage the collection. This is true whether the collection is a digital archive or a group of original items. Donating the collection to a museum, library, or archive assures that it will be managed and be available indefinitely. Another option is to transfer the collection to a family member who is interested in becoming the historical repository for the next generation.

By far, the best practice is to make arrangements to transfer the collection while the person can still provide information about the collection. Unfortunately, it is all too common for relatives to deal with a historical collection in a hurry after the person with the collection is no longer able to manage it. Relatives who can see this coming may want to initiate discussions to minimize the problems later.


American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), no date. “Caring for your Treasures: Photographs.” Accessed June 18, 2011 at

Cornell University Library, 2003, “Moving Theory into Practice: Digital Imaging Tutorial.” Acessed May 22, 2011 from

Lavédrine, Bertrand, 2003. A Guide to the Preventive Conservation of Photograph Collections. Published by Getty Publications in Los Angeles, CA.

National Archives, no date, “Caring for your Family Archives.” Accessed July 28, 2011 at

Ng, Kwong Bor & Kucsma, Jason, 2010. Digitization in the Real World: Lessons Learned from Small and Medium-Sized Digitization Projects. Published by Metropolitan New York Library Council in New York, NY.

Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn; & Vogt-O’Connor, Diane, 2006. Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Published by The Society of American Archivists in Chicago, IL.

Taylor, Maureen A., 2010. Preserving your Family Photographs. Published by Picture Perfect Press.



[Version of 9/20/2015 – Updated links 10/22/2015]

Historical photos and documents

Chapter Contents

Chapter 1. Basic Principles of Archiving Photographs and Documents

1.1 Historical Archive Versus Personal Photograph Collection

1.2 What to Include in a Historical Archive

1.3 Museum Versus Family Historical Archives

1.4 Master Images and Working Copies

1.5 Organizing an Archive and Naming Files

1.6 Backup and Migration of the Archive

1.7 Preserving the Original Items

1.8 Plan for when You Cannot Manage Your Historical Collection


Chapters in the Book

Introduction: Background, Purpose, and Example Archive Projects

1. Basic Principles of Archiving Photographs and Documents

2. Good and Best Practices for Making Digital Images

3. Setting Tone and Color in Master Images

4. Documentation for Historical Images

5. Preparation and Display of Historical Photographs and Documents

6. Good and Best Practices for Making Audio Recordings

7. Preparation and Presentation of Historical Audio Recordings

8. Historical Slide Shows

9. Copyrights and Other Legal Rights


A. Practical Color Management

B. Overview of Scanning Software

C. Effective Resolution of Scanners

D. Using Copy Stands with Cameras

E. Batch Processing of Images

Other Resources

Guidance on Using Scanning Software

Guidance on Using Slide Show Software

Downloads and Links

This website and book were developed by Jim Kennedy.


© 2012, 2013, 2015 James E. Kennedy