Digitize Everything for Lasting Family Archives

Graphic: Diego Aguirre
Two events this week, one personal and another that is making international headlines, made me re-think what can, and should, be digitized: Everything. If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll remember my piece, " Paperless office? Ha! How about a paperless life?." In that column, I talked about my quest to eliminate paper in favor of electronic alternatives. But this week I realized that some things other than paper documents and media can, and should, be digitized.

The first event that sparked this epiphany was my transition to semi-nomadic living". My idea was to take the monthly expense for a big house, and divide it between a small studio in California and hotel rooms, bungalows, huts - whatever - as my wife and I travel around the world for much of each year.

The challenge: What to do with all our stuff? Our goal: Get rid of half our "stuff" by selling, donating or throwing away, place about one quarter into storage, and move the remaining quarter into the studio.

The second event I mentioned was a disaster in my city. I live in Santa Barbara, Calif., which as I write this is surrounded by raging wildfires". At press time, some 30,000 people have been evacuated". Many had to get out with less than 20 minutes notice.

Which raises the question: What do you give up when you streamline, downsize and go digital nomad? And, what do you lose when your house burns in a fire?

Furniture and buildings can be replaced. But what about old family pictures? Paintings your children made in kindergarten? Trophies? Award plaques? Objects passed down from previous generations?

Like everyone else, I suppose, we've got boxes of ill-defined "stuff" stored away - papers, clippings, memorabilia.

Because much of our stuff was poorly organized, we slogged through every possession, every box, every drawer and considered what to do with every possession we own. Besides being extraordinarily time consuming, the process was also very difficult. When it comes to deciding whether to keep or discard something, where do you draw the line? Old holiday and birthday cards? OK, those can be discarded. Mother's day cards from kids? Hmmm. Trophies? Yikes! There are a million items that make you feel a loss when you toss, but if you keep them, they'll be buried unseen for decades.

It's these same items that are irreplaceable after an unexpected fire, flood, hurricane or other regional or personal disaster.

The solution is to digitize everything. Here's how.

1. Capture

Set up an old digital camera on a tri-pod, or a newer one set at a lower megapixel size (You don't want gigantic images to process; 3 to 5 megapixels is about right). You might point the camera down at a table, or set up some kind of easel. But make it easy and quick to set something down, snap a picture and move to the next item.

Then, do what we did. One by one, go through every box, drawer and item in your house that could contain something of value and take a picture of it. Photographs. Awards. Scrapbook items. Clippings. Whatever. Don't agonize, just take a picture of everything that might be of value later on.

Then, grab that camera and walk around the house snapping pictures of everything you own of value - furniture, jewelry, cars. These pictures could help you with the insurance company if tragedy does strike.

2. Index for search

Now, sign up for an account with Evernote". Download the desktop application, and drop all your pictures into the application. Evernote will upload them all to its servers, and - here's the best part - index all words it finds in the pictures, which makes them searchable. Later, you can just search Evernote as if it were Google, and find pictures of just about any item. You can also categorize, tag, sort or file everything in any way you choose.

Evernote allows 40MBs of uploads per month for free. If you pay $45 per year, you get 500MB per month.

If you want to stay under the free limit, then pace yourself, uploading 40MB per month until everything is uploaded.

3. Share

Some of your digitized items are boring documents. But others have sentimental family value. You'll want to upload these to Flickr or some other service (I personally prefer SmugMug", but that costs at least $40 per year), and share them with friends and family.

4. Backup

You can probably trust Evernote and your photo-sharing service to not lose your valuable images. But "probably" isn't the same as "definitely." Make sure you've got an off-site backup going.

I personally prefer Carbonite", but there are many online backup services available. Carbonite costs $55 per year, but you get unlimited storage. And it's brain-dead easy to use. You simply install it, and everything is backed up automatically.

5. Discard

Here's the best part: Shred, recycle, burn or discard most of this stuff you digitized.

Doing this can save you money on storage and later moving costs, and simplify your life. You've already got digital versions of everything captured, uploaded, indexed and backed up. What good is keeping the physical object buried in a box where nobody will ever see it?

Throwing away things of value feels counterintuitive, but let me share with you something pretty extreme that we did.

My son is a martial artist. Years ago, he competed nationally and racked up an enormous number of trophies (many of them six feet high). We moved years ago, and packed them all into giant boxes probably numbering in the dozens. They remained in those boxes for several more moves. Nobody ever saw them, but they took up enormous space, and made our moves more expensive.

It turns out that my son is an even more extreme digital nomad than I am, so he readily agreed with our project: Photograph all the trophies (at least the ones that weren't damaged in the moves), and then get rid of them all. So we lined them up in the backyard, my son posed for the pictures, and I snapped away. We then donated most of the trophies to a local karate instructor who teaches small children. He removed my son's name and other details on the trophies and gave them to the kids in school tournaments he held.

For the first time ever, all my son's friends and family members have now seen his trophies, thanks to Facebook and photo-sharing sites. Which raises a philosophical question: Are the trophies gone now? Or were they "gone" before?

And we no longer have to manage all those boxes. Best of all, neither fire, nor time nor neglect can destroy the photographs we took of them.

We did the same thing with various plaques, awards, certificates of achievement by all members of the family.

Other items, such as old family pictures, we digitized but did not discard.

So now we've downsized. And while we're worried for friends who have evacuated the fire areas, and worry that they will lose everything they own in the fire, we don't have to worry about our own personal stuff we digitized.

So whether you're a digital nomad, want to simplify your life, or just want to protect your most valuable possessions in case of disaster, digitize everything. It's cheap, easy and is definitely worth the effort.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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