I started assembling a computer library of family recordings, photos and writing a couple of years ago. I've observed that, while most people make it a point to put car titles and deeds in safe deposit boxes and secure jewelry and china in delicate display cases, family letters and videotapes gather dust in the backs of closets or attics and basements.
That's one of the worst things you can do with delicate media. Changes in humidity and age yellow photos and paper and magnetic tapes begin to decline after a decade or two. Even digital media isn't forever -- you have to keep extra copies to ensure the data on your computer will survive a hard drive crash.
Converting your precious memories to digital formats means you can easily copy and transport it. Doing it yourself is a fun and inexpensive alternative to paying a service to convert your media.
It's really simple to archive and maintain a collection of old tape recordings.
A free recording software called Audacity is easy to use and works on PC, Mac and Linux.
A cable with 1/8-inch jacks on either end (like those on headphones) will link your tape player to your computer's mic jack. Record the audio digitally using Audacity and use the LAME mp3 Encoder to save it in this popular format. Figure on an hour of work for every half hour of tape. You can work from any format as long as you have a decent player. I bought a reel-to-reel deck online for $25 to convert from this old-school format.
Apple's iPhoto and Google's Picasa (for PC) can be used with a cheap scanner to migrate all of your paper photos (and Grandma's love letters, too) to digital. It's a great idea to sit down with older family members and have them explain who these people are in your family pictures and what they're doing. Short captions can be attached in Picasa and iPhoto.
Your local drug store can scan photos for as little 15 cents each, and slides can be scanned for 30 to 40 cents each. Depending on how many you have to do, it might make sense to buy a specialty scanner.
This can be a little tricky, but making home movies is very rewarding. Old VHS films can export to your computer through a feature called "analog pass through." All this means is you're passing the analog video and audio (that comes out of your VCR along RCA cables) through a digitizing device. This is usually a digital video camera that has analog inputs. The video streams from the digital camera into your computer. There's a variety of consumer-grade video editing software that lets you save your work and export to DVD.
Take your time setting up the equipment, and everything should work well. The instructions can look like Greek at first, but it's fairly easy after you do it for the first time. Your kids and grandchildren will thank you for the effort.
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