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The Step-by-Step Guide To Digitising Your Life

Your increasingly digital lifestyle has left your analogue media collecting dust. Save it from obsolescence and digitise your life.

This guide covers many different kinds of media, so feel free to skip to the section(s) that interest you the most:

  1. Paper
  2. Images
  3. Audio
  4. Video
  5. Storage and Organisation

Paper

Gina’s Complete Guide to Going Paperless details how to avoid accumulating more paper.  We’ll build on those principals here but also discuss how to eliminate the paper you already have.

Mobile apps, such as DocScanner (iPhone/Android), are available for on-the-go and casual document scanning.  If you’re really taking the leap into a paper-free existence, however, you’re going to need an actual scanner suited for the job.  Nowadays, with the proliferation of inexpensive multifunction printers, you may already have one.  Many multifunctions not only have a flatbed scanner but a sheet-fed document scanner as well.  Additionally, if you can scan to an SD card (or other flash media) your scanner may be able to create multi-page PDFs for you without even connecting to your computer.  If not – or if you’d just prefer to go all out – there are a number of scanners that are designed to help you.  Here’s a short list:

  • Fujitsu’s ScanSnap S300 makes PDF creation simple and is a favourite in the paperless community.
  • Canon’s imageFORMULA P-150 is a great portable choice, especially for Evernote users.
  • Apparent’s Doxie is a budget-conscious option that integrates well with the cloud.

Finding a used sheet-fed scanner is always a nice way to save some money, and when you’re finished scanning your paper you can always sell it yourself to recoup some of the cost.
Scanning software is another choice in the process, and there are several:

  • Adobe Acrobat (Windows/Mac OS X) scans documents to the PDF format and can perform optical character recognition (OCR).
  • VueScan (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux) supports over 1500 scanners, can save to PDF and offers a free trial.
  • Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard‘s Image Capture can save scans as PDF documents and perform visual adjustments.  It comes free with the operating system.
  • Microsoft Office (Windows) can scan individual pages or to its proprietary MDI format as well as perform OCR.
  • As discussed earlier, you may also be able to use the software built-in to your multifunction printer.

No matter what you choose, you’re going to discover that you can’t approach all paper in exactly the same way.  You’ll want to consider the following:

  • The different types of paper you’ll be scanning and if your scanner can handle each size.
  • Whether or not you’ll be scanning colour documents and documents printed on non-white paper.
  • If you’ll need software that can perform OCR.
  • If you’ll need to scan any double-sided materials.
  • The types of documents you’ll be scanning.  For example, are they all typed-text documents or will you be scanning handwritten notes as well?

While it would be next to impossible to cover every type of paper you may encounter, below are a few common varieties and tips on how to handle them.

Notes
Taking notes on a laptop may be the easiest way to eliminate paper from the get-go but it’s not always possible.  If you have to take notes on paper — or if you prefer it — you have the option of either using a smart pen device, scanning your notes manually or both.

If you choose a digital pen, like the LiveScribe PulseLogitech io and IRISNotes, you can capture handwritten notes as you write them.  Some offer software that converts your handwriting into typed text.

Scanning can be a drag when you have a notebook, but notebooks with removable or tear-out pages are an easy way to simply add the notes to your sheet-fed scanner.  If you have a traditional notebook, however, there is a trick to removing pages cleanly and easily.

One last thing to keep in mind when scanning notes is whether or not your scanner can handle double-sided pages on its own.  If it can’t, you’ll have to choose between manually scanning each side of the page on your own or only using one side of the paper when writing your notes.

Receipts
Receipt scanning has become especially popular because of all the benefits it provides when doing your taxes.  Receipts are also important in warranty claims and occasionally when reselling your old purchases.  They’re easy to lose so a digital copy is very handy, especially when you introduce OCR into the equation.  Being able to search the text in your receipts makes finding the information you need quick and simple.

Because some receipts get especially long, not all sheet-fed scanners can handle them.  Neat makes a few products design to handle receipts.  There are also mobile apps, such as QuickPic and JotNot Scanner, that can scan receipts on the go.

If you’re having trouble scanning a receipt because of its size, one workaround is cutting the receipt into pieces that will fit on a standard 8.5×11 sheet of paper and taping them to it.  This will give the scanner, whether it’s sheet-fed or flatbed, a size it recognises.

Manuals
The wonderful thing about digitising instruction manuals is that you generally don’t have to.  Most manuals can be downloaded from the product manufacturer’s site.  If you can’t find them by searching for the product code, you may have luck by searching for a code printed on the manual.  Many manuals will display a string of numbers printed on the front or back.  Search for those and you may find the PDF you’re looking for.

Reading Material (Books, Screenplays, Etc)
Chances are you won’t be digitising your entire collection of literature just yet.  Scanning a book is a far more complex process than just about anything else you’ll deal with.  Wikipedia outlines the process pretty thoroughly, and companies like Atiz provide the complex equipment and software to get the job done, but DIYBookScanner.org will help you do it yourself.  Instructables and Eric Mack each provide tutorials for scanning textbooks yourself, 

Of course, you don’t always have to scan books yourself.  Dreamhost’s ePubBud digitises your children’s books for free.  Google Books has already scanned several books that are available online for free.  The Internet ArchiveFree eBooks and others provide free digital literature as well.

Sheet Music
Sheet music can be scanned like any other single or multi-page document, however it’s important to note that some sheet-fed scanners can introduce artefacts into more complex documents.  In some cases a flatbed scanner may be better.

Alternatively, you may not have to scan your sheet music at all.  Many instrument-specific MIDI files can be converted into playable sheet music.  Most sequencing software provides the option to view MIDI data as sheet music, and products like Sibelius and Finale can import MIDI files for further arrangement.  MIDINotate (Windows) and Rosegarden (Linux) are simpler options, and Apple’s GarageBand (Mac) can easily import MIDI data and display it as sheet music.  8notes.com also offers a free online converter if you don’t want to install any software at all.

Images

Photos
Nowadays digital cameras capture more than just pictures.  Digital photos come with exchangeable image file format (EXIF) data and, in some cases, location information.  Old photos are just photos, but fortunately software like A Better Finder Attributes (Mac), XnView (Windows) and jhead (Linux) can help add EXIF data to your scanned images.

Actually scanning the images can be a challenge, too.  Some sheet-fed scanners can cause artefacts in photos, so flatbed scanners may be a better option.  The scan itself comes with its own set of issues.  Post-scan you may have to correct colour and image orientation.  You’ll need to choose an adequate resolution.  Additionally, if you scan several photos in a flatbed scanner you’ll need to separate each photos.  Image detection and orientation correction is something newer scanning software can often handle automatically, but be sure before making your image scanning software selection.  The resolution you choose can be important as well, but if you are scanning low resolution photos a higher DPI setting isn’t going to make a difference.  300 DPI is a good minimum (about the equivalent of a 2MP photo), but 600 DPI (about the equivalent of an 8MP photo) is generally the sweet spot for photo scans.

Once your photos have been scanned, you may want to bring them into Photoshop (or other image-editing software) to clean and sharpen them up as well as correct colour.  To take things a bit further, check out Kevin’s Top 10 Photo Fixing and Image Editing Tricks.

Negatives and Slides
Scanning negatives and slides is a little more complex than your average image because light needs to pass through the film in order to digitally capture the image.  Dedicated negative and slide scanners exist, but flatbed scanners with transparency adaptors will work just fine.

Because scanning negatives and slides involves enlarging a tiny image, dust can become a big problem.  You don’t want to actually touch the negative or slide, but you can remove dust using a can of compressed air.  You’ll also want to clean off the scanner bed each time you scan to avoid dust as well.  Compressed air will work here as well, but dust wipes are also very effective.

When performing the actual scanning, the software included with your scanner may be your best option.  You’ll want to select specifically what you’re scanning, as you’re not necessarily looking to scan the negative but rather the positive reproduction of the negative.  Once your scan is complete, you can treat it like you would any other image.

Audio

Most everyone knows how to rip CDs, but dealing with older media can be a greater challenge.  Additionally, maintaining a digital music collection often means leaving behind album artwork, lyric books and more — but it doesn’t have to.

Album Art and Booklets
Finding album art is easy nowadays.  A Google ImageAmazon or albumart.org search will often turn up what you’re looking for.  Even iTunes can locate album artwork on its own.  Booklets, on the other hand, are harder to come by.  Since iTunes added digital booklets to albums, and those digital booklets are in the PDF format, you can scan accompanying materials from your CDs and attach them to the corresponding album in iTunes.

Scanning is covered comprehensively in the paper and image sections of this guide, so let’s assume you’ve managed to scan in the booklet.  Adding it to iTunes involves the same process as any other compatible file: drag it onto your iTunes library or choose “Add to Library” from the File menu and select the scanned PDF.  The only remaining step is to edit the ID3 tags to match the corresponding album.  To do this simply select the PDF you just imported, choose “Get Info” from the File menu, and type in the name of the album with which you want the PDF to appear.  This will cause the PDF to appear with music in album view and show up in searches for that particular album.

Cassette Tapes
Audio cassettes are actually very simple to digitise.  Because most cassette players provide an 1/8-inch stereo output and most desktop and laptop computers also provide a 1/8-inch stereo input, you can buy a cheap 1/8-inch stereo cable and connect the two together.  You can use any software capable of recording audio on your computer to capture the output of the cassette player.  Just press play on the cassette player and record in your audio software of choice.

The process is, of course, a little more complex than just simply recording.  The digital recording you end up with may not be up to your standards.  You’ll want to at least normalise the audio levels of the recording, if not each track individually, before exporting each track separately.  There are also tools like BIAS SoundSoap that can help remove imperfections in the recordings, such as crackle and hum.  Roxio Spin Doctor is software designed to help make the entire process easier.  If you need a free application for recording audio, Audacity is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

LPs
Digitising your old LPs is a similar process, but you either need a digital turntable or a pre-amp to use an existing one.  The ART USB Phono Plus v2 is a USB pre-amp, bypassing the need for an audio input on your computer.  However, if you’d prefer to use your computer’s audio input and a standard pre-amp, that will work just fine as well.

Video

While analogue audio enjoys a retro-resurgence, tapes are becoming a lost format in the video world.  With many digital formats forgoing tapes entirely, it’s becoming more difficult to digitise your old media.

Tapes (VHS, Hi8, Etc.)
Analogue-to-digital video converters are the most common tools for digitising your old tapes.  In fact, your DV camera may have conversion capabilities.  If you can input composite audio and video or s-video to your DV camera you can use it to digitise just about any analogue source.  All you’ll need to get it onto your computer is software that can handle a DV stream.  Pretty much any video editing software made in the last decade can capture DV so you won’t be hard-pressed to find something.  Apple’s iMovie and Final Cut Express/Pro (Mac), Windows Movie Maker (Windows) and Kino (Linux) are just a few examples.  If you don’t have a DV Camera, you can also use TV Tuner cards with composite input or DV bridges made specifically for the purpose of converting analogue video.  For more information, Videohelp.org covers the analogue-to-digital conversion process in greater detail.

While newer video recording formats tend to avoid or minimise the pitfalls of quality degradation through use, VHS tapes do not provide that luxury.  You may find that when digitising especially worn-out VHS tapes, the digital signal will cut out due to something as minor as a little jitter.  This is due to a break in the timecode on the VHS tape.  The simplest way around this issue is to obtain a high-quality, professional VHS deck with a time-base corrector.  The time-base corrector will generate the timecode instead of the actual tape and this will prevent the jitter.  While these decks were once fairly expensive, you can now find them used online for a fairly reasonable price.

Most analogue video formats can be digitised by utilising a converter, but in the case of Hi8 tapes you have another option.  Sony created Digital8 camcorders that have the ability to digitise Hi8 tapes in-camera and output a DV signal.

Though the suggestion so far has been to save video in the DV codec, with enough video you’ll need a significant amount of disk space to store it.  If you’re comfortable with more aggressive compression, encoding your newly digitised videos in MPEG4 or H.264 will help save a significant amount of space.  Encoding at a data rate of around 2mbps and an audio data rate of 192kbps should provide you with a smaller file and a negligible loss of quality.

DVDs

DVDs haven’t taken the turn towards obsolescence yet, but if you want to back up your DVD collection, take copies with you on your portable media player or just have a completely filed-based collection of your movies you need to rip them.  Lifehacker’s covered the topic of DVD-ripping pretty extensively in the following articles:

Storage and Organisation

If you’ve made it this far, we’ve talked about creating a ton of files.  With thousands of new documents, pictures, songs and videos you’ll need a plan to keep things organised.  Ultimately this will be defined by you, but storage options will help you dictate what you’ll do with your newly digitised life.

Local Storage

The easiest method of storage is buying a large external hard drive and organising the files in a simple folder structure.  The upside is the simplicity of it.  The downside is that you have no backup.  If you don’t plan to store your files anywhere online, you’ll want to — at the very least — purchase redundant storage so a hard drive failure won’t necessarily cause the loss of your data.  Configuring a RAID Array is the more common and best methods of accomplishing this, but you can also simply keep a separate backup.  If you do keep a separate backup, storing it in a fire safe box or somewhere outside of your home will reduce the risk of losing your data.

If you want to share you digitised life with others in your home, you might consider a network-attached storage (NAS) device.  Data Robotics offers very simple solutions with few features while NetgearSynologyHPDELLSeagateWestern DigitalBuffaloLinksys and others offer more feature-rich NAS devices of varying complexity. 

Cloud Storage

While local storage is somewhat of a necessity, keeping local backups isn’t.  With excellent online backup tools available for free or very little money, storing your data in the cloud is another option.  Online storage doesn’t necessarily need to be an exact replica of your local drive.  An alternative to storing your data using a backup service is posting your media to social media sites.  There are several options for video and photos.  OfficeDrop (formerly Pixily) hosts your documents.  You’re not confined to using traditional storage and bearing the associated costs thanks to a number of free and low-cost sites that handle it for you.  The exchange?  You may have to settle for lower quality copy of your digitised life.

Talking about storage is a lot like talking to a lawyer: they’re always going to give you a conservative response.  It’s easy to say you need to keep three copies of everything and go through as much trouble as you can bear to ensure you never lose your precious data.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach but it’s not necessarily realistic for many people.  When deciding how you’re going to store your digitised life, be sure to factor in a storage and organisation process you’ll actually follow.  Find a balance that allows you to keep your data safe while not overwhelming you with too much extra work.

Although this guide is comprehensive, digitising your life is an enormous process that can never be covered by a single post.  If you’re digitising your life — or any part of it — and have something to contribute, please post in the comments.

Special thanks to Sean FitzroyDan Killam and David Weeks for their contributions.


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