Creating a Personal Digital Archive

Wondering what to do with all the photos, 8mm movies, and financial records you've got scattered about your house or office?

How do you back them up? How do you convert analog images to digital to stop the aging process? Can you trust digital backups? Here are a few approaches.

For the near term, you don't have to worry about file formats changing or CDs becoming obsolete, so just back up everything that's already digital to CDs or DVDs. Store one copy off-site, say at your office or in a safe-deposit box. Also, put the most important data on a home PC, so you have an easy recovery method. The biggest immediate dangers to data are user error and viruses.

For the long term — meaning 5 to 50 years — you must choose your media and formats carefully. Microsoft Office formats will still be around, or readily translatable, as will JPEG and TIFF file formats for photos and PDF file formats for documents. Video formats are in greater flux, but for now you'll be fine with MPEG-2 or the emerging and superior MPEG-4.

Now's the time to switch to recordable DVD from CD for backups. Buy a multiformat drive that supports "plus" and "dash" DVD media, and use only branded media; the same advice holds true for CDs. Cheap media can be troublesome. High-quality media will last a lifetime. That said, a cautious person would copy onto a new format every 10 years; this means your early-1990s CD-Rs are about due for replacement.

Pass the Paper, Please

For miscellaneous paper documents, the best way to archive is with a sheet-feeder scanner.

Unless you're a real type-A personality, start with the most important documents, meaning your year-end brokerage statements, your tax records, and a couple examples of your kids' drawings and homework from each year. Scan at 300 dpi and use PDF as the output format.

Why scan when you can get some bills online? Electronic bill presentment is still a joke, unfortunately. You really want your statements e-mailed automatically in PDF format, but what you get now is just a monthly reminder to go online, log on, view them, and manually download the statements.

Picture This

You can help future generations by culling your digital photos now.

If you can't cut this year's 2,500 digital images to 500, then create a "2003 Favorites" folder and copy over your favorite 100 photos. A CD with those 100 photos makes a nice holiday gift for the in-laws.

Make sure to annotate each picture, either in the filename or in the JPEG file information field: year, place, and people in the picture. Before culling, it's probably best to make one full backup, in case you mess up and delete the photos you meant to save. Have I ever messed up like that? No comment.

If you have traditional film photos, scan your favorites and have a photo service scan the negatives of your very favorites.

I get asked this question a lot: "Isn't there someplace cheap I can get all my negatives scanned?" Nope. In massive quantities, you'd be lucky to get down to a buck a frame for high-quality scans.

If you really must digitize all your prints, buy or borrow one of HP's flatbed scanners with a 4-by-6 print feeder, or a Visioneer auto-feeding scanner such as the Visioneer Strobe XP 450 PDF, and set aside a weekend. Or invest $1,000 in a film scanner (not an attachment to a flatbed scanner) that has automatic dust and scratch removal.

What's the purpose of digitizing 500 rolls of prints unless you ID each picture? A better way is to pick the best half-dozen from each roll. (Tip for your next vacation: Think about capturing the one perfect picture as the memento you'll treasure 10 years from now, which means getting yourself in the photo.)

Digitizing Film and Video

The same goes for videos: There is no cheap commercial video-transfer service for archiving Dad's 8mm movies. For videos, copy your analog (VHS, 8mm, Hi8) footage to DVD in MPEG2 or maybe MPEG4 format. Don't bother editing the footage at the same time or you'll never finish.

If you want the highest quality, also dupe your analog tapes to new digital video (DV) tapes. DV currently offers the best quality and is easier to edit. For PC capture, you'll need a video capture card to import analog video.

Some DV camcorders have analog capture: You can dupe analog tapes directly or use your DV camcorder as a pass-through (via its FireWire cable) to your PC. Also consider direct-to-DVD recorders such as the HP DVD Movie Writer dc3000.

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