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Preserving those new (and old) holiday memories

Sorry, I never got around to those promised posts because, well, I’ve become a genealogy addict. But don’t you worry, this post is relevant even to people who are sick of reading about genealogy.
Mom and I were going through some old photo albums, and some of the photographs were in pretty bad shape. For all the talk about concerns over how long inkjet prints of digital pictures might last, some of Mom’s 30-year-old prints are, well, fading fast. Meanwhile, Mom has some prints that were taken 30 years ago that look like they could have been processed yesterday, except for the clothes the people were wearing.

I remember almost 15 years ago, when a neighbor’s house burned, going through their rescued photo albums, opening up the drenched pages, taking out whatever photos would come out in one piece, and putting them on towels scattered about the house to dry. I noticed that Polaroids are very difficult to get remove intact from sticky album pages, even under ideal conditions. Well, now I wonder if anyone pays attention to the acid content in those album pages and what else might contribute to pictures deterriorating.

But I’m not going to spend too much time thinking about that (why not leave that to the infamous self-proclaimed aristocrat and scientist?) because there’s an easy solution.

Scan those bad boys.

Most people have mountains of photographs, so it’ll take a while, but if you set out to scan a page a day, or a few pages a week on Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll eventually get through them. Burn them to a quality CD–I know among the name-brand discs you find in stores, the most consistent performer you’ll find is Kodak. If you buy in bulk, your best bet is either Mitsui or Taiyo Yuden, which are the two brands that CD duplicators most frequently use. The estimated lifespan under reasonable conditions for a high-quality CD-R is around 100 years. Some of my cheap house-brand CD-Rs haven’t lasted two years. So buy good stuff, and store the discs at room temperature. Don’t put them in the attic unless they’re full of pictures of former significant others whom you wish you’d never met. Remember the basic scientific principle that raising the temperature 10 degrees doubles the speed of a chemical reaction, so in theory, raising the temperature 10 degrees halves life expectancy. Storing your CD-Rs in a closed box in the basement, assuming it’s not terribly humid down there (40% relative humidity is optimal, according to Kodak), would be a good idea.

Actually, that same principle would be just as true for your prints as well.

Anyway, what do you do when the prints have already started to fade? Scan them anyway. Sometimes the scan ends up looking better than the original. If not, then try turning them into B&W pictures. Use your imaging software to convert it to greyscale, then play with the brightness and contrast. You’ll lose the color, but you might very well save the print. In the case of some of the old pictures of me, it’ll be harder to tell that I had blonde hair when I was really young, but it’ll at least be possible to tell what I looked like.

If you don’t have a scanner or you’re dissatisfied with the speed or quality of your existing scanner, I can recommend Canon’s LiDE series. They’re inexpensive and offer a very nice combination of speed and image quality. Most of them get their power from the USB port, which saves you a power outlet. And they’re small and light enough that they can fit into a laptop bag, making it possible to take a scanner and laptop along with you when you visit family and scan some old photos.

Getting those photos into digital form gives you other advantages as well. Some imaging software allows you to add captions or descriptions to the photos. If you’re Linux-savvy, you can set up a nice family website using one of the 12 bazillion gallery programs out there. You can keep it on your local LAN if you don’t want that stuff on the public Internet–you and your family can still enjoy punching through pictures on a strategically placed computer the same way you flip through old photo albums. If you’ve got a nice color printer, you can make as many reprints as you want, and if they fade, you can always just print them again. And while you’re burning CDs, you can burn an extra copy or two and keep them in someone else’s basement. If disaster strikes, insurance can replace most material items, but not the one-of-a-kinds like your photographs. Fortunately it’s easy to ensure they’re no longer one-of-a-kinds.

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10 thoughts on “Preserving those new (and old) holiday memories”

  1. Yep, I started doing that a couple of years ago, still haven’t finished. And especially relevant for those old Polaroids, they really don’t hold up well. A caveat though. If you’re going to keep those cds around for upwards of 100 years, being able to read them then might be a trick. Those files will have to be rewritten to current media and formats over time or they will end up just as lost as if you had kept them in the attic.

  2. The British magazine Linux Format ran a great article in their November issue (LXF46) on using the Gimp program to repair old photographs. That issue also included Gentoo Linux 1.4 on the included CD/DVD.

    Their article archives are behind by about ten issues, so it probably won’t appear on the web anytime too soon. Fortunately, they post most of their articles as downloadable PDF files.

  3. You know ? This is just the sort of easy, straight-forward idea that often gets overlooked. Yeah, sure it’s cool to transfer your home movies/videos to digital format and burn DVDs, but don’t forget those family photos either! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for the reminder, Dave…

  4. Good point, Paul, which brings up something else: From a preservationist standpoint it’d be best not to use the JPEG file format since it’ll introduce generational loss if you have to convert it to anything else in the future. 24-bit PNGs or TIFFs are much bigger, but they don’t lose any quality.

    And that said, I’d be surprised if current formats don’t remain readable for at least 15-20 years. We’re only just now getting rid of 3.5″ floppies, which first became common in 1984 on Macintoshes and 1987 on PCs.

  5. Hi Dave,

    Glad to read this post. I am doing the same thing. Takes a long time but will be done eventually.

    I am curious as to the bad CDs you have experienced. Fred Langa had a rather alarming piece on this is his newsletter a couple months ago. He had experienced unpredictable disk failures and set about trying to determine what, if anything, was a common factor between CDRs that were good and those that failed. His result? Scary! ALL of the ones that failed had one thing in common and it was not the brand of the media, it was the fact that they had all had CD labels applied.

    Anyone here have any experience to be able to say whether this is an experience particular to Fred or if the this is something we need to really be concerned with. Fred’s conclusion was that the label was the worst thing to do to a CDR.

    I always try to use Verbatim DataLife Plus CDR and DVDR disks. Any thoughts on that brand as well as Maxell, TDK and Fuji?

    Thank you,


  6. CDR quality I have come to learn varies greatly because even brand names seem to purchase their CDRs from various manufactures.

    I have come to the conclusion in my reading to purchase from the quality manufactures such as Mitsui or Taiyo Yuden (I once purchased from an American Manufacturer in NY State but have since lost the link).

    When Kodak still made the Optima brand I bought a batch. I still have them as I only burn a few discs a month. Mostly to back of my data, i.e., programs purchased over the Internet, or my digital photos.

    To add to the confusion, I once read that it is not so much the disc used as it is the CD writer one uses. Since the CD writer’s laser calibration may vary from one brand to the next.

    As far as labeling. Label glues are the culprit and harsh writing instruments can damage the surface of CDRs. This I avoid like the plague. Again, after much reading the “Sharpies” are ok to use. Before sharpies I used oil based ink to label the CDRs. The oil based ink I could only find in an arts supply store.

    There seems to be no clear-cut answer since the rules of the game seem to move.

    As a result, I use the best quality manufacturer of the disc and a decent writer, marked with a felt tip marker and no glued labels and stored in the dark.

    I have yet to experience a bad disc.

  7. As far as advice on CD-R in general, the best place to go is I remember reading this FAQ back when $999 was a pretty good deal for a CD burner, so it’s pretty safe to say there isn’t anyone with more experience or knowledge on the subject.

    As far as brand names that are still widely available, TDK is probably the best, since the Kodaks are pretty much gone. TDK has a good reputation and we burn a lot of discs on TDKs at work and haven’t had problems.

    Verbatim and Maxell have been very bad in the past, though they may or may not be better now. (I had nothing but problems with Verbatims early on and haven’t bought any since–I had better luck even with cheap, nasty bulk generics.) I have no experience with Fuji.

    I’m with Andy, using labels is just a bad idea in general (it’s bad for the drive too, if the label isn’t perfectly balanced, which it probably won’t be), and you really should be careful about the pen you use. Sharpies are supposed to be OK–the manufacturer states they use them on CD-Rs in-house all the time and have no problems, but they haven’t had it tested independently. If you’re paranoid, write only on the clear center part of the disc. Protect both sides from scratches (scratches on either side can ruin the disc, particularly scratches on the label side), and buy your burners from reputable makers. If you’re really paranoid, burn super-important discs at low speed. Then store them in a closed box in a reasonably cool place, make backup copies and store them in a closed box in another reasonably cool place, and hope for the best.

  8. Dave, I noticed you mentioned Canon LiDE series scanners. I’ve seen several models of same in various stores around here. Got any ideas on which might be better ? The least expensive Canon LiDE 30 is only $80 ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Since I’ve got two of them, I’ll comment on the Canon LiDE scanners. I bought one of the first models to come out (the N650U). Relatively fast and quiet (though I *was* coming from a parallel-port UMAX, so…). And I love not having to plug in another brick.

    Since my wife just wouldn’t leave my scanner alone :), I bought her her own, an LiDE 30. As I recall, both scanners have about the same specs (1200×2400, 48-bit color), and were about the same price. There’s also an LiDE 20 that has a lower resolution (600×1200); Canon has a comparison on their site. I do think I like the earlier TWAIN software, though. I haven’t played around with the LiDE 30’s version enough to see how to fine-tune your scan settings. Still, it does a fine job.

  10. I’ve played with an LiDE 30 a bit and I’m impressed with it. It’s reasonably fast, the resolution is higher than any printer I’m likely to own within the next five years, and the color accuracy is better than most older scanners I’ve used. And the bundled software is pretty decent, even. For 80 bucks it’s hard to go wrong with it.

    I think it’s good enough to justify the extra cost over the entry-level scanners, and the only reason I’d buy anything more expensive than that is if I needed higher resolution or a document feeder.

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