Here are two ways to digitize family documents in a format that’s easy for your computer to search—without you adding a single keyword.
The first way is to use a document scanner that has OCR, which stands for Optical Character Recognition.
I have a really old ScanSnap Scanner by Fujitsu that I’ve used for years. It’s so old it’s no longer being supported so I have to use my older computer to run it. Eventually I’ll have to get a new one. But it has worked so well and the important thing about it is that it has Optical Character Recognition. On a page with type it will recognize the characters and turn it into text that I can copy and paste and that the computer can search.
Put the page or pages for your document in the feeder and press the scan button. It will run the pages through the scanner and create a multi-page PDF for you.
I scanned a 6 page speech my mother typed out by doing this. In her case she was trying to save money so she used some old paper with something else on the back. With a scanner like this you can choose to save both sides of the paper so in this case I chose the one-sided option.
A document scanner is very fast, which is one of the features I love about a scanner like this.
Another scanner you can use to scan documents is the Epson FastFoto scanner. The newest version will do the OCR. It’s best, though, to just go online and search for a scanner that does OCR.
Document scanners aren’t the most expensive scanners but they’re not cheap either. They’re in the middle price range at about $500 or $600 or maybe sometimes a little bit more. So if you’re not ready to go that route or if you don’t have that many documents, you can always use a free app on your phone.
The app I’m going to show you is the Adobe Scan app for either iPhone or Android. It’s free and it’ll create either JPEGs or PDFs. It does take longer, but I’ll show you a faster way to do it.
Set your family document on a flat surface in good light. Open the Adobe app on your phone and press the little camera icon. Try to hold it as steady as you can. It’s going to find the four corners of your document and take a picture. If it doesn’t come out perfect, that’s okay because you can always click the retake button. It does a pretty good job but it’s usually a bit skewedt, so I prefer to use a different method, especially if I have more than one page to scan.
I like to build a makeshift stand to hold my phone so it stays perfectly straight in one place. I made the stand with some items I found in my garage:
- A plastic tub that was the right height for seeing the entire document on my phone
- A medium long board on which to rest the phone. The longer part of the board was toward the back to balance the weight of the phone.
- A few shims—pieces of cardboard—that moved the front end of the board up a bit so it was perfectly horizontal.
- A book positioned just above where the board crossed the tub to steady the whole thing.
- A ruler at the base of the tub to set a boundary for where the lower edge of the document should go.
- A couple of pieces of tape along the document sides to show the proper position. The will stay in the same place the whole time.
When you look at the document position on the phone app it’ll be in the exact position to create a nice rectangular scan.
To begin click on the little camera icon in the app. When the app senses the position of the document it’ll take the first picture. Click continue to accept it or Repeat to repeat it. You shouldn’t have to repeat any of the scans with a setup like this.
I put 3 pages of a family document in a stack below the camera and removed the top page after it was scanned so I could continue with each of the other two pages. This is a lot easier than sitting there and holding the camera.
When you’ve scanned the last page click Continue. It’ll want to scan another document so instead click the page icon in the lower right corner to have the app complete the document and turn it into a PDF. My scan turned out beautifully with three pages that were nice and straight.
At the bottom of the app there are some icons that give you other options such as add another page, rearrange the order of your pages, and crop, rotate, or delete pages.
When you’re satisfied click on”Save PDF” in the upper right corner and it will create your PDF. You can change the name and share it via email or text.
Here’s an image of the PDF on my computer showing how you can now highlight text so you can copy and paste it when telling family stories.
So those are two ways to turn your family documents into searchable PDFs you can save with the rest of your family scans and files. Once you do this most documents can be thrown away which gives you less to store in your garage!
To get my latest updates, tips, and tricks for finishing your family history, be sure to sign up for Family History Hero News.