RootsTech 2014

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Selecting the appropriate digitizing technology

Several people have asked me lately about the newly advertised hand-held scanners to use for genealogical research and document preservation. The questions remind me of a common problem, whether to purchase a general purpose tool or one that is specifically designed for one purpose only. I have mentioned before that I am a tool person. I have learned with a lot of trial and error (read a lot of trials and errors), that some jobs require a specific tool. This perspective has gotten me into a lot of trouble at times, like trying to find the "right" lineage linked database program among all the offerings. But, in the area of document preservation the options are a little more clear cut and somewhat obvious.

Hand-held scanners are not a new innovation. Neither is the technology new. I can remember testing and using these smaller devices, at least, ten or more years ago. With scanners and other digitizing methods, the reality is not usually consistent with the advertising hype however. Personally, I see no use whatsoever for portable hand-held wand type scanners. Their quality is not near that of an inexpensive digital camera and the camera is a much more useful device.

But to make an educated decision, first, I need to have some definitions. Digitizing means to take a physical object or document and make a digital image. This can be done with a digital camera, a flat bed scanner, a sheet fed scanner, or one of the hand-held variety. You could also use any kind of video device including a video camera or camcorder. In today's market digitizing devices can cost anywhere from under $100 dollars to over $30,000 dollars or much more. With such a huge price range, there must be a lot of difference in the devices? Maybe, but depending on your needs and the requirements of the job you may have a pretty narrow range of options. What does make the choice more difficult is the fact that there are literally dozens of models of scanners at each price range to chose from. There is an exception however, with the very high priced scanners, they tend to be very specialized. But if you are in the market for a device that costs over $10,000 I hope you know what you are doing.

In order to make an educated decision and not just go out and spend money for another gadget, there are several serious considerations. Here are some in no particular order of importance:

How are you going to use the scanning device? Hand-held or bar scanners are cheap and relatively low resolution. Some scan only as low as 200 dpi. Most flat bed scanners today start at about 4800 dpi x 9600 dpi. (I will have another post about this term "dpi" in the near future, but right now, you can think of it as a rough comparison of the amount of detail the scanner or device will preserve). A hand-held device may be convenient for quick note taking in a library, but totally inappropriate for scanning photos for archive purposes. Do you have a huge pile of documents or are you mainly scanning old photographs? How large are the documents and photos? The answer to each of these questions will immediately limit the type of device you use.

How much scanning are you going to do? If you have a few hundred documents or photos, quality should be the first concern and it may not matter that much how fast the scanner operates and produces an image. On the other hand if you are going to do thousands of documents or photos, you may wish to consider a more specialized sheet fed scanner or a higher quality digital camera.

Where are you going to do your scanning? If you have a fixed location in an office, kitchen, bedroom or whatever, you may wish to have more extensive equipment. If your location is very limited or always onsite, you may wish to go with a more portable device, a smaller scanner or a digital camera.

What are you going to do with the images once they are scanned? If you are concerned about long term archive quality, your scanner or other device will have to qualify at that level. There are however, some minimal levels of quality that need to be addressed. (Hmm, another topic for the future). As with any tool, you may want to have a flat bed scanner for a fixed location scanning project and a digital camera to use in field or at a library.

All digitizing devices today are designed to be used in conjunction with a computer or printer. You may need to determine if your computer can support the newer devices. Scanned or digitized images can take up a lot of computer memory and older machines my simply not be adequate at any level to handle the images.

If you have questions, please send me your comments and I will address the issues in future posts.

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