Technology has progressed so quickly that anyone over the age of 30 has probably amassed a collection of data generated in both analog and multiple generations of digital technology. (I'm looking at you, Commodore cassette tape drive.) And though you may never need a particular bit of data, being able to find an eight-year-old résumé or to search through a decade of tax returns may prove invaluable at some point. It's a great way to reduce clutter, too: Once you've digitized and backed up your old media, you can then recycle or otherwise dispose of much of it. So let's look at what you need to know to digitize all of your old media.
Organize Your Collection
First, you need to take inventory of the digital media you may need to convert or recover, including old machines, hard drives, and removable media. Make special note of anything broken or damaged, since getting that data back may require a specialist's help.
For analog media--including paper documents, tapes, and film--that you plan to preserve, you'll want a simple reference system for finding the source item from the digital copy. I recommend sticker labels, available at any office supply store. Once you've converted something, just write the filename on the label and affix the label to the box or file folder.
Where to Store Your Digital Archive
Hard disks: The fastest way to store digital copies is to use an external hard drive. An external drive with USB that can store a terabyte of data costs around US$100. So buy two! Use one for active archiving, and keep the other as a backup in another location. In case of a calamity, you'll still have a copy. A terabyte drive will hold approximately 180 hours of high-definition video, 100 days of CD-quality audio, or the equivalent of 200 single-sided DVD-R discs.
Remote backup: Another option is to store the data online. You can use software such as JungleDisk, which will store your data at a remote location that is accessible from practically any Internet connection. The software and service together cost $2 a month, plus storage costs based on how much you use--$15 a month for 100GB, $150 a month for 1TB. You can set JungleDisk to back up on the fly; that way, as you add to your digital history, the service will store new documents on multiple servers with near-instant accessibility.
Hard disks and old computers: For hard disks, including those from old machines, retrieving the data may simply be a matter of sliding it into an external drive enclosure and plugging it in. Most laptops have 2.5-inch disk drives, while 3.5-inch drives have been the desktop standard for the past decade. Enclosures for either size with USB connectors start at about $30. Make sure that the drive and the enclosure connections are compatible; for instance, check whether the drive is SATA or ATA/IDE (which will be marked on the drive).
Removable media: If you have a lot of one type of old media, it may be best simply to get an old drive to match. USB readers for multiple memory-card formats and for external 3.5-inch floppy drives with USB connectors are readily available online for about $20. Other drives--tape backup drives; magneto-optical drives; and Zip, Jaz and Ditto drives--are easy to find on eBay. You may need special adapter cables to connect old serial ports to USB, and you may need the original software to recover compressed or protected backups.
If you have just a few old disks or cartridges to handle, a number of data conversion companies will be happy to take a box of old media from you and either deliver their data to you via e-mail or burn it onto CDs or DVDs. If you live in a city, look for local companies, including PC repair shops, to save on shipping; and call multiple companies to compare prices. Advanced Computer Innovations can convert an astonishing array of media, operating systems, and file formats.
Due to age or damage, some of your media and hardware might be unreadable. If you have the appropriate drive, you can use data recovery software to try to save the data--including lost photos or video from camera memory cards. Virtual Lab Data Recovery supports most common media, hardware, and file systems. Disk Doctors offers both software and services, including data recovery from damaged media and devices.
After you've backed up all of the data on a device that you can use, it still may not be readable or searchable. Documents from old machines and software may be saved in binary formats that their modern equivalents can't understand. There are two approaches to converting data that your current software can't read into friendly formats: Look for conversion software or software add-ons online; or look for emulation software. The Emulator Zone has all sorts of old computer operating system emulators, including Commodore, Amiga, and Macintosh.
Audiotape: To digitize analog audiotape, you'll need a tape player to play back the cassette or open reel, an audio input for your computer, and a piece of recording software. If your computer doesn't already have a line-in connector, you can buy a USB device. For software, Audacity is a free, open-source sound editor that will get the job done. If the audio consists of interviews or spoken-word content, you may want to transcribe it so that the content becomes searchable. CastingWords charges only $0.75 per minute of audiotape for transcripts.
If you have more-exotic media, such as four-track cassettes or half-inch tape, and you want to preserve the independent tracks, you'll need a multitrack input device. M-Audio sells both four track and eight track USB devices. If you don't have a device to play back the original tapes, such as 1-inch analog or digital ADAT eight-track recordings, contact local recording studios. A number of restoration services, including Graham Newton, advertise online; consult one of them if you need help with damaged or broken tapes or records.
Videotape: For digital video, a FireWire or FireWire-to-USB cable should suffice to connect a camera to your computer. Otherwise, recording videotape is the same as recording audiotape. In fact, if you expect to record video as well as audio, you can use any of a number of video conversion devices to record both--possibly saving you a bit of money. For instance, the EasyCap USB 2.0 Video Capture Adapter ($15 at Amazon.com) can perform both video and audio capture. When possible, use an S-Video cable to improve the quality of the transfer.
If you'd like someone else to do the work, you should be able to find a local service that can convert old tapes to DVD. If you have old professional-grade tapes (such as U-Matic, Beta SP, or DigiBeta), you may need to find a specialist. The folks at BetaSPtoDVD.com will convert almost any old tape to DVD, and they keep a great blog about video transfers and archiving tips.
Negatives and slides: Depending on the quality of digital output you want, you have various options. For 35mm slides and negatives, or other transparent still photos, you can get a decent digital image with an inexpensive flatbed scanner equipped with a transparency adapter. If you want high-resolution digital copies for later printing, your best bet is to go to a service. Most professional photographers arrange for a service like New York's Matrix to scan film on a wet-mount drum scanner, which can produce stunning results. Check your local listings for professional photo or printing services.
Motion pictures: For movies, you should go straight to the pros. But don't settle for DVD quality: Film is much more detailed than DVD video, and old footage made require some restoration for best results. Have the film scanned and returned as 1080p HD video (on Blu-ray discs or on an external hard drive). For transfers from16mm film to HD video (including film cleaning, return media, and shipping), fees range from $5 to $8 a minute at companies like My Movie Transfer and Video Conversion Experts.
Documents and Photos
For paper documents and photographic prints, a flatbed scanner generally does the trick. If you're working with art or photography, a sub-$100 entry-level scanner should be fine. If you're planning to scan an entire manuscript, however, you should probably look for a scanner that has an automatic feeder; such models start at around $300. It's also a good idea to have image editing software on hand for retouching photos and art, and optical character recognition software for converting typed or printed text documents so that you can search their contents easily.
Whether you're preserving family history or business documents, your own art works or a collection of old records, bringing your archives into the digital age and making them searchable stands to benefit you now and (especially) in the future.