Tools for Going Digital

November 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Posted in Backup, Computers, Hardware, Media, Movies, Music, Software | 1 Comment

Gradually over the last few years, I’ve been digitizing my stuff. It takes less space, it’s easier to find, it can travel with me, and I can work and play with it immediately. I can also re-purpose it, like turning photos into a screen-saver, music into a play-list, and school notes into a reference library. Files are all one style, not stored by media (records, tapes, etc.) or misfiled or needing yet another device to play or piece of furniture to store. The computer becomes a repository of my life.

After getting a digital camera, photos were the first to migrate. Mostly I used an HP scanner with a photo feeder. If you have the option, a quick programmed action in Photoshop to colour balance, despeckle (dust), and sharpen left a polished  job reasonably quickly. All is now sorted in folders by year, month and event.

I found a film projector at a garage sale for the old super8 films and videotaped that. A little klutzy but the films were in rough shape and many edits had broken. Home videos I then turned into DVDs using a DVR. The Panasonic model had a built in hard drive so they could be digitized then sorted onto DVD’s. That model DVR died prematurely but fortunately after conversions were done.

Another project was all the various music media, including old albums and cassettes. The free Exact Audio Copy is best for CD’s (add Lame for MP3 output). Audacity has the pop & noise removal and editing tools for older media. If you have music you own that you don’t have the device to play to digitize it, use the power of Google to find replacement files. Google allows you to search for file-types using specific search commands. Tools like Gooload and GoogleMusicSearch make this easier. Read what the second has to say about the technique and spam sites. You’re looking for plain directories of stored files, not graphical promotion and spam sites. And you’ll also want to check the conversion quality (bit-rate) of the source. (R-click file, Properties, Details, Audio Bit-rate)

I also tackled the family photo albums, some hand-tinted going back 100 years. As the photos and memorabilia were glued to the pages, this required a large format scanner.

There are now 2 types of scanner lights. Traditional bulb scanners like Epson’s are great for art and professional uses where there is some depth of field (focus range) and colour precise imaging is required. Newer LED scanners don’t have the depth of field but are fine for the flat stuff and much less costly. You’ll see reviews are stratified for LED scanners as some are caught unawares by this difference.

I got a Scanexpress A3 1200 for this project. Now, many family members have copies of the old family albums and we don’t have to worry about where to eventually store the big pile of crumbling, fading albums.

Slides, I thinned out. The slide attachment for my HP scanner illustrated how the dust on slides is massively magnified and way to much labour to fix. The old travel slides were mostly scenery and had bleached out. Some of the best had been printed anyway. I picked out the very best of the rest and had a photo lab handle the conversion. The cost can add up but a pro shop has the gear to clear dust and do it well.

The last big project was all the paper. Binders of school & course notes, workshops, family records, business cards, writing, recipes, references, correspondence, and on and on. Very little of it needed to be kept in paper form, filing boxes and file cabinets. And some of it would be much more useful if it was searchable.

Enter yet another scanner. This one, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i. While the above could do the scanning, it would take far too long. My old company uses Fujitsu scanners to scan thousands of pages of documents every day. They’re a real workhorse but not inexpensive. I was pleased to see this one at a reasonable cost but remarkably full-featured and smaller than a loaf of bread. Just flip open the lid and it turns on. Stick in the paper – from business card size to 8.5″ x 14″ – and push start.

In one pass it will:
– scan both sides of the page if they have content
– straighten the image if its sideways or a bit crocked
– determine if it’s B&W, gray-scale or colour content
– determine the page size
– combine each batch into a PDF
– and more.
The unit will also scan to email or on-line storage which can be synced to smartphones. The list goes on and on.  (see the above link for more)

That PDF can then be made searchable with the built-in Abbyy Finereader OCR (Optical Character (text) Recognition) tool. You can set it to do this automatically but I’d recommend this be a second step after scanning. You can start OCR and scan more at the same time. Also you can skip messy handwritten documents, images and other files unsuitable for OCR.

In addition to being searchable (quick find), an OCRed scan can be used to cut and paste quotes, though the quality of OCR text will depend on the quality of the original. Expect a few typos.

Documents that have been bound or hole-punched together may be prone to stick together. In this case, load a page, then the next, and the next a little ahead of the feeder. This ensures they don’t bind and the scan is complete. I’ve done hundreds of pages in a single file this way.

PDF editing tools may be useful after if you need to combine or separate  PDFs or insert pages. You can find free recommendations through here. Note to OCR first. Some tools will change the Meta source info of the PDF. ScanSnap Abbyy will not OCR files identified as from other sources. (that’s a more expensive product)

Now that I’m caught up, it’s easy to convert new documents. Just flip open the top, stick in the pages and press start. By default, the file-name is the scan date & time so I rename and file it after. No boxes of archives and a mostly empty filing cabinet. I can also use it to scan photos so it’s become my day-to-day digitizer.

And of course, order your statements and such digitally rather than in paper. Then you have less wasted paper to scan. I get little postal mail now.

You do want to learn to organize files on a computer. A heap of dated scans really doesn’t serve you well long term, though you can use Search to find content. Give the folders and important documents names with dates for faster finding. File them in a sensible folder structure. See more in Digital Filing Cabinet.

Of course, if you go digital, make sure you have an automated backup system. For myself, I copy off the assembled scans to DVD for archive and have an automatic daily backup to an external hard drive. If it’s important to you, store those DVD archives in another building.

For Windows 7, the imaging tool included works well. For an extra data backup tool, I use the free Cobain Backup. Both to an external hard drive and both scheduled.

Hope the suggestions are useful.

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  1. […] worried if their computer dies – they’ll just buy another. But gradually as our lives go more digital, we start collecting digital things that are more difficult to lose. The password for the service […]


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