Skip to main content

Times of the Islands Magazine

Become a Family Historian Before You're Family History! - Digitization is rewarding and a treasure for future generations

May 07, 2021 02:44PM ● By KENNETH BURGENER

In seventh grade in 1967, we were assigned to write our family history, making sure old photos were identified. Both my grandmothers and mother were a big help; they wrote names on the back of pictures. Making the family tree was fun but time-consuming.

We went through the family Bible and named as many people as Grandma could remember. We got my grandfather, a retired Indianapolis Fire Department battalion chief, to write names of guys in several photos from 1910 to 1940! After writing the paper, I sent it to my cousin, who was very organized and I was sure would keep it.

Perhaps you plan to digitize old photos and are labeling them first. If using an ink pen, write on the borders. On several prints, Grandma wrote: “This is my Mother, Helen.” Fifty years later, I’m the only one who knows she wrote that. Full names should be used; when dates are included, that helps future generations understand timelines.

Surrounded by boxes of photos and rolls of film? If you—yes, you—don’t organize these family treasures, they’ll be thrown away after you’re gone. What would your children do with photos when they have no idea who’s who? Yep, your life in pictures is headed to the dump! So get moving and be amazed at what you’ll learn. Also, it will bring the family closer—from your kids to fourth cousins twice removed.

It’s easy to start: Steps to digitize family history are digitizing, identifying, organizing, narration, distribution and storage. Digitize to the highest quality so images are easy to edit and will look great on a large TV or in a printed book. Putting names on pictures is important—with advances in facial recognition, it might be possible to trace your family back many generations.

Technology makes it simple to digitize pictures, letters and documents. The hardest medium to digitize is 8mm film; I’m sure you have several boxes! It needs to be sent to a professional digitizing company. Much of this film is more than 50 years old, brittle and can break. Trying to get a projector to work is difficult. So spend some money and send it away.

Old VHS tapes are in almost the same category as 8mm film. It also may be best to let professionals deal with them. For slides, you can purchase a slide duplicator for less than $100, or send them to a duplicating company.  medium to digitize is 8mm film; I’m sure you have several boxes! It needs to be sent to a professional digitizing company. Much of this film is more than 50 years old, brittle and can break. Trying to get a projector to work is difficult. So spend some money and send it away.

On a photo, instead of writing “MLB Dale on his birthday,” write: “Mabel Burgener and my baby Dale O. Burgener on Sept. 1918.” It can be confusing to use initials. MLB was Mabel Leona Burgener; before marriage she was Mabel Leona Schaeffer. Nowadays, many women keep their name after marriage. It’s also helpful to have full names because of divorce.

In 2010, I made a DVD of our family history. I was sure cousins and other family members would enjoy seeing old pictures. With the invention of digital photography, it was fairly easy for me to produce an entertaining and educational film.

My mother-in-law, Stella, prepared a wonderful book on Burgener family history. I called my cousin, who had that paper with photos and the family tree I made in 1967. She copied it to send to Stella, who was surprised with all the info. Stella has prepared 170 family history books for people and told me that mine was the only one that had help from the grave!

Stella’s book opened the door for more info. Back “home” in Indiana in 2011, I drove to Plymouth to research my ancestors. At the Marshall County Historical Society, I told a woman named Karin Rettinger that I was seeking Burgener family info. “I guess you want to find out about the claim your great-uncle filed in 1895 in Colorado on a gold mine?” she asked.

After I got up from the floor, she led me to a file cabinet and retrieved several documents. Turns out the gold mine was a bust and Great-Uncle Edward moved back to Plymouth to open a general store. “Karin, how’d you know where this info was?” She replied: “Oh, I just filed it several years ago and I can remember all that stuff.”

Two years ago, I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I grew up. My sister lives in the same house and we went through more photos left by both sets of grandparents. We discovered old prints from the 1890s. Grandma had written names on the back of the pictures. With Stella’s book, we were able to put together another set of photos with correct names and relationships.

Our digital age made it easy to take the pictures with me when I again drove to the Marshall County Historical Society. I walked inside and Karin Rettinger said, “Hi, Ken. Any more info about the Burgener family?” I had “just” been there in 2011! I showed her the new pictures and we downloaded them into the database. Most historical societies are interlinked.

Fort Wayne’s Allen County Public Library is one of the best organizations in the nation in which to do genealogy research. I gave my info to the library’s research department members, who were excited to add it to their large and growing database.

On a library computer, I looked up photos from the 1919 U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Convoy. I didn’t find anything but saw other photos—and was shocked by their low quality. They’d been scanned at a very low resolution with circa-1990 technology. I was told the library sent the pictures to a company that scanned them, then destroyed the prints!

While digging into the history stored in our family home, my sister, Joan, found a flight log of our father’s. I suggested donating such items to our historical society. She wanted to keep them until I reminded her they’d been in the same location for 60 years! Off to the society we went—and some of the things were accepted.

I uncovered Grandmother’s report cards from 1900 to 1910. She attended Ohio’s Hicksville High, graduating valedictorian in 1910. I digitized several more pictures, drove to Hicksville and gave the report cards to the school. It was homecoming weekend and I received a ticket to the football game. I was the only Class of 1910 representative! We won the game and I saved $6 on my ticket.

With all the research from my family, and the genealogy book, we were able to send detailed info to four different historical societies. This work was very rewarding—and will be a treasure for future generations.

Many people use smartphones to copy photos. If you have lots to be digitized, you may want to send them to a company that will scan them. The quality is much better than with a phone and it’s easier to distribute them. Another option is to buy a scanner and do it yourself.  It’s time-consuming but results are as good as from a scanning company. We bought a Cannon scanner for less than $90 and it works great.

Now that you have hundreds of photos scanned and hours of film and VHS tapes digitized, what to do with them? Well, several computer programs are available that let you create a historical film project using your photos and films. Add music, titles and voice-overs and you could end up with a film worthy of an Oscar!

Get the family involved: Ask when photos were taken and who’s in them. Look for landmarks, see how small trees were and bring back memories of houses or cars. Computer programs can add footsteps, rain, wind and thousands of other sound effects. If your children are students, it could be a school project. Kids are a great source of info and ideas. I still remember talking with both grandmothers and Mom about those old photos. Use email and YouTube; family members and many answers about your history are only a click away!

There are many sites for storing films and photos, making it easy and cheap to share pictures. Have a backup and perhaps send copies to relatives. I keep a copy on the computer and also on a hard drive that’s in a fireproof safe. A photo book is also a great way to store and share memories. Once again, there are many companies that will print a family keepsake.

Go find your history and take it to your loved ones. Even if it’s only one picture. Do it for your family—and future generations.

Sanibel resident Ken Burgener is a world traveler. He was a sailboat captain in The Caribbean and has worked as a tour guide for Audubon, Dragonfly Expeditions, AAA, Greyhound, and Road Scholars. He is the founder of Carefree Birding.