Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Digitizing Genealogy -- An Introduction to the Series

It has been a couple of years since I last wrote about the digitization process from a practical standpoint. It is time to review the products, methods and reasons for converting our paper copies to digital images. The overall process seems simple enough, the paper document is scanned/photographed and the image is then attached to the pertinent individuals in a genealogical database program and/or an online family tree. But it turns out that the details of such an operation can be overwhelming to many genealogists.

This is the first part of an ongoing series on the entire process of digitizing documents. I intend to include both the mechanics and theory of the process including most, if not all, of the options. I also intend to discuss the pros and cons of digital copies vs. original paper and the serious issues of digital preservation. The equipment for making very high quality digital images is very rapidly evolving. Just one example, Canon has announced a 50.6-Megapixel camera for introduction in June of 2015. Much of the previous discussion about making digital images centers around the issue of flatbed scanners vs. cameras for archive images. The resolution of the images is a controversial topic among archivists and others concerned with the quality of the images. As the equipment available for consumer use increases in quality, these quality issues become more and more esoteric.

My intention here is to meld my 62 years of photography experience with my 46 years of computer technology experience and explain the issues and details of the issues in terms of my now 33 years of genealogy experience. In the process, I may also discuss the legal/ethical issues based on 40 years of legal experience. I will also throw in, for good measure, my perspective of working and living in libraries and archives for the past 62 years.

The proliferation of cameras coupled with phones, makes estimates of the number of cameras in use today almost impossible. Some estimates run as high as 5.8 billion cameras in use around the world out of a total population of 7 billion and that includes a figure of 1.8 billion sold in 2014. As a result of this expansion, many genealogists are likely carrying around a camera that is perfectly adequate for document preservation and don't even know it. Recognizing this change in technology, there are a very few archivists who are seriously considering the use of consumer level cameras for archive purposes. See the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Digital Historian Series.

At the same time cameras have evolved from the specialized purchase option into something everyone carries around all the time, the scanning technology has also rapidly evolved and the cost of a high quality multipage, double-sided, sheetfed scanner has dropped dramatically. The prices of all types of scanning equipment have plummeted and today the cost of setting up a scanning operation is minimal compared to the cost of the labor to do the scanning and catalog the results.

At the same time, the field of digital preservation is fraught with its own dangers and concerns. Access to existing paper collections is spotty throughout the world. Many genealogically significant records are still "locked up" by bureaucratic red tape and concerns about legal rights. The monetization of records is also a concern. Of course politics plays a huge part in the availability of records and repressive governments are not limited to developing countries. As technology makes taking the images less expensive, both public and private repositories and archives are seeing the revenue value of their collections and limiting reproduction rights to preserve cash flow.

The issues that accompany digitization do not end with the production of a digital image. What happens to that image after it is produced is probably as important as the creation of the image itself. Many large companies today make sizable incomes from the process of organizing and displaying digital images of documents.

Now, to summarize, this series will touch on as many issues as possible across the entire spectrum of using digital images for genealogical research and preservation. Rather than numbering the series, I will tag the posts with the words "Digitizing Genealogy" and all the posts in the series will appear in the sidebar list of topics I have created. You may have to scroll down a ways to the list, but the series will be there and available.

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