Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Digitizing old media

I was very interested to see LifeHacker's post on Digitizing Your Life today because I've been working on this, to varying degrees, for many years.  I think this is a long multi-year project for anyone who was not born in the digital age.  If, like me, you were born anytime before 1980 or so, you probably have accumulated lots of letters, cassette tapes, and non-digital photos over your lifetime.  Digitizing these things allows you to:
1) have a digital version that can be backed up in multiple locations
2) have less physical material to store in your home, or to move next time you move to a new home
3) in the case of tapes, use your media on new devices as old tape players become obsolete

Digitizing can take a lot of work.  Of course, how much work it takes depends a lot on which media you have the most of and are least willing to throw out.  But here are my experiences with digitizing different media.

Audio Cassette Tapes and Vinyl LP's
I love music, so the thought of losing music that I had on old cassette tapes and records was really hard for me.  If I didn't want to just throw them out and lose the music, then the options are basically to buy a replacement on CD or MP3, or record the music to my computer myself using the free audio program Audacity.  If it is a common enough album, then you can find it used online for a few dollars, so that's often the best option.  But otherwise, you can get a 1/8" mini jack to 1/8" mini jack cable and run it from the headphone jack on a tape or record player or stereo console to the line in jack on your computer, start recording in Audacity, and start playing the album.  You'll lose some audio quality, so that is something to consider.  And you'll still probably want to split the recording into tracks, which takes some time.  So I recommend purchasing a true digital replacement whenever it's affordable.

Video Cassette Tapes
I'm not as much of a movie lover as a music lover, so this one wasn't as hard for me as the music.  Basically the options are the same: see if you can purchase a DVD replacement, digitize it yourself , or just throw it out.  Home movies are the hard part because you can't buy them and you probably don't want to throw them out.  Computers don't generally have video inputs, so digitizing with your computer will require special hardware and software, like Roxio Easy VHS to DVD.  I paid a local service to have my home movies converted to DVD.  You can probably find one of these services near you for less than $20 per VHS tape.

Letters and Cards
I've saved a lot of paper letters and cards from family and friends over the pre-email years.  I've been carrying them around in a big box from home to home, along with old college papers typed on a typewriter or very old word processor.  Letters or papers that are on 8 1/2" by 11" paper that isn't too folded or crumpled can be fed through a scanner with a multi-page document feeder fairly easily.  And you can find that kind of scanner in an all-in-one printer for under $100.  But the odd-sized letters and cards and other odd-shaped souvenirs will have to be done on the flatbed part of the scanner.  Some of them I've just taken a digital picture of, depending on what it is.  I'm still working on this project.  I just take a stack every couple weeks or so, decide what I can just throw out, and I scan the rest.

I had a complete under-bed storage box of old photos from the non-digital photo era.  And as I mentioned above, 3" by 5" photos probably won't go through a standard scanner's document feeder.  So I would place 3 or 4 related photos (slightly overlapped) on the glass of the flatbed scanner at a time.  As I mentioned above, I did this over many weeks/months.  If you have some free time, you just grab a stack of photos and scan them in, and someday you make it through all of them!

Of course all of this begs the question, do we really need to keep all these things?  I think most people would have a hard time throwing out old photos or home movies.  And like I said, music was hard for me to just throw out too.  But letters and cards are I think where I could throw out more without scanning them.  Oh well, at least I'm happier being a digital pack rat than a paper one :-)