How to Convert Paper Documents to Electronic Form

Family history documents and photos rarely start out as electronic files. There weren’t many digital cameras and computers on the early farms of Nebraska, Wisconsin, or Winterswijk! :) Consequently, our family history files must generally be converted to electronic format before we can display them on our website.

Fortunately, there are good technology tools available to convert the old paper documents and photos. Perhaps some of your historical memorabilia has already been converted. In some cases someone may have scanned old family photos and emailed you the copies. In other cases you may have downloaded some images or documents from web-based genealogy databases, such as If you already have electronic photo and document files, then you can go directly to the FAQ discussion page called “How To Upload Files.” Otherwise, read on for more information about converting your “hard copy” (i.e., paper) photos and documents.

The most common way to convert a paper photo or document to digital format is to use a scanner. There are many good quality, relatively inexpensive scanners available. There are also scanning services available, which will scan your documents and photos for you, and give you electronic copies on a CD or DVD. If you happen to have old photographic slides or negatives, there are also scanners and scanning services that can convert those to digital files.

The preferred format for the electronic files is “JPG” (pronounced “J-peg”) for photos. Documents can be scanned either as “JPG” or “PDF” files. Set the scanning resolution as high as possible to get the best quality electronic file possible, even if such a setting results in a very large file size. The original electronic file can be copied later at lower resolution and smaller file size, as appropriate.

Photographic Copy
Today’s digital cameras are capable of very high image quality and resolution. One easy way of converting paper photos and documents into electronic files is simply to take a digital photo of each document. Place the original document or photo in a well-lit area. Try to avoid any glare on the document and do not use flash. Hold the camera very steady or use a tripod if possible. Keep the entire document parallel to the camera lens, so that there are no out-of-focus areas.

Once you have taken a photo, attach the photo to an email and send it to the Send the photo file at the largest file size posible, since larger sizes will provide better resolution and detail. You can also upload the electronic image files directly to the website, as described in another FAQ page called “How to Upload Files.”