Many genealogists are technologically savvy. They use
microfilm and microfiche readers, search the Internet, and scan documents and
pictures into their computers. Some researchers even use handheld scanning
devices and digital cameras. There is an incredible diversity of gadgets and
tools available for use by family historians. Here’s an overview of some new
ways to join the digital age without emptying your bank account.
According to the Photo Marketing Association, about
twenty percent of the cameras sold in the United States today are digital, with
an increase expected as the cameras decrease in price. This figure suggests that
if you don’t currently own a digital camera, you probably will soon. Why not?
Digital cameras allow you to preview pictures before you take them, and never
buy film again. It takes a few minutes to adjust to looking at the screen on the
back of the camera rather than through the viewfinder, but after that it’s easy.
Digital cameras have many uses for the family researcher. Take the camera
with you to a relative’s house to make copies of family photographs, visit the
cemetery and take pictures of the headstones, or bring the camera to a family
reunion and email pictures to relatives with no additional cost.
Purchasing criteria includes more than just price. Be sure that the camera
fits your needs. Try it out at the camera store and read reviews before
purchasing. Online reviews like those at Steve’s DigiCams
(www.steves-digicams.com) can help you make the right decision.
The keyword in this technology is “megapixels,” or resolution. Digital
cameras are classed by the number of megapixels they produce. The average
resolution of images posted on the Internet is 72 dpi (dots per inch), but if
you intend to make traditional prints from your images you will want to buy a
camera with several megapixels for crisp-looking prints.
When purchasing a camera, learn what peripherals you’ll need. Can you connect
the camera directly to your computer for downloading files or do you need a
separate memory card reader? Does the memory card packaged with the camera have
enough storage capacity for your picture-taking habits or will you need to
purchase a larger one? While most cameras use regular batteries, a set of
rechargeable batteries is a good investment. You may begin by planning to buy an
inexpensive camera, but the additional costs of the peripherals compound
quickly. Make sure you understand your camera needs before you purchase, and
take into account the final charges.
Image organizing software
If you’ve scanned family pictures and documents, you
know that you must name and organize those images in order to find them again.
What if there was software that streamlined the process? There is, and
organizing those various images just became easier. Picasa has received rave
reviews in the Wall Street Journal and just about every PC and camera
magazine. The New York Times called it “a housekeeper for digital
photos.” The Picasa software ferrets out all of the image files stored on your
computer, whether they are scanned images, digital photos, or files downloaded
from another source. Picasa doesn’t differentiate between photographs and
scanned documents — if an image file (jpeg, tif, etc.) exists on your hard
drive, Picasa will find it. The software automatically organizes the files into
albums, and allows you to assign keywords to the pictures. The keywords allow
you to search all of your albums at once. You can even view thumbnails of all
the images in your albums.
Picasa is so simple that even a computer novice can use it — the software
does all the work. Do you have a love letter written between your
great-grandparents? Scan the letter, place it in an album, keyword the surnames,
and you will be able to find the letter at a moment’s notice. Click on a picture
in an album and email it to a relative, move it to another album, or print a
copy. You can even order traditional photographs of your digital files through
the Picasa website with a single mouseclick.
Download a free trial version of Picasa at www.picasa.net. There are other types of
photo-organizing software on the market, but for $29.95 this one beats the
competition in price and ease of use.
Image editing software
If you need to improve the appearance of a family
photo or enhance an old document, you might need to invest in a special software
package. Basic image editing software is packaged with digital cameras and
scanners, but these programs may not include all the features you will need.
Be cautious when choosing image editing software. Some software, such as
Adobe Photoshop 7.0, is intended for professional use. Its price places it out
of reach of most home computer users and it has a steep learning curve (you’ll
have to learn new techniques and a new vocabulary). In any book store, you will
find several publications focusing on Photoshop — a good indication of the
amount of time you’ll spend learning about the product. There are plenty of
other choices, including Microsoft’s Picture It!, which comes in several
different versions. It’s affordable and most people find it user-friendly. Once
again, read reviews such as those on ConsumerSearch.com(consumersearch.com/www/computers/
photo_editing_software/index.html) before you purchase any program.
Once you have a software program, play with it until you’re comfortable with
the features it offers. Create cards from your favorite family photographs or
documents, create digital scrapbook pages, or just work to enhance your older
family photographs. For ideas on creating digital scrapbook pages, consult twopeasinabucket.com. You won’t believe what you’ll be
able to accomplish!
Do you print the photographs and documents stored on
your computer or do you share them electronically? The latter is probable.
Special photo printers sell for less than $200, so explore the printing
capabilities of your current equipment.
Close to one hundred percent of film users are satisfied with the prints they
receive, but that number drops dramatically for people printing digital image
files at home. In fact, a Kodak representative once stated that, of the thirty
billion digital pictures taken annually, less than six billion are printed.
Prints made at home using regular inks and papers have a very short shelf
life compared to those made with traditional photo printing methods. While you
can share your files electronically, there is something satisfying about holding
a photograph in your hands. And ask yourself if the next generation will be able
to view your computer files on their updated technology.
Digital image files have changed the way we store family photographs, but
that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue the tradition of keeping print
albums. The beautiful thing about the technology available today is that you can
single out special pictures or documents and print them after you’ve improved
their appearance with image-editing software. You can print them at home using
special inks and papers, order copies through an online service, or use one of
the kiosks available in many stores.
Should you choose to continue printing images at home, use products
specifically manufactured for print stability. Lyson, Ltd. (www.lyson.com) and MIS
Associates, Inc. (www.inksupply.com) can supply you with appropriate inks
and papers. As consumer awareness of preservation increases, more equipment
manufacturers are advertising papers, inks, and printing technologies to make
prints that will last longer than ever before. Follow the latest research by
looking at Henry Wilhelm’s website, www.wilhelmresearch.com, which also offers a list of
suppliers. Wilhelm is the author with Carol Brower of The Permanence and Care
of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives,
Slides, and Motion Pictures (Preservation Publishing Co., 1993).
Preserving your files
If you consistently back up your picture and data
files, congratulate yourself. If not, you would be well advised to back up your
picture files on a regular basis and make two copies of the backup. Store the
backups in two separate places, protecting them from water, heat, scratches, and
operator mistakes. If you click the wrong button when accessing your backup, you
might inadvertently erase the disk or drive on which you store your pictures.
Photo CD-ROMs or Zip drives work well as back-up mediums. While CD-ROMs used
to have a short shelf life (under ten years), manufacturers now claim that the
disks will last at least fifty years. Store your CD-ROMs in the same environment
as your original photographs — at a temperature of no more than seventy-seven
degrees Fahrenheit and forty percent humidity.
The resources and tools described above are just a few of the options now
available for genealogists — but the marketplace changes daily and it can be
difficult to know of all the new technologies. Look to your fellow genealogists
for advice. Beau Sharbrough writes articles on new technology for Ancestry
Daily News and offers a public forum on the issues raised by these columns
at www.rootsworks.com/forums. Dick Eastman’s weekly
newsletter at www.rootsforum.com/newsletter/index.html includes
reviews of products of interest to genealogists.
Picasa is available from the NEHGS Book Store.
Order online at www.NewEnglandAncestors.org or call toll-free