In 1958, Vernon James was an adventurous young man from Colorado who landed a job teaching in Germany for the Department of Defense. During his 16-year stint there, he travelled extensively throughout Europe — including several visits behind the Iron Curtain into West Berlin — and he took lots and lots of photos.
Decades came and went and in 2005 Mr. James — who was retired by then — decided to scan his European slides along with the other slides and photos he had accumulated over the years. “I was ignorant of scanning when I started this project,” said James. “I had heard about scanners and bought a scanner with a slide attachment and I started scanning all of my slides.”
The scanner did just what Mr. James wanted it to do: it scanned. When he finished the slides he started on photos: from his wife’s year teaching in Ethiopia, from his wedding and more…a lifetime of personal photos. “After that we started scanning everything I had in the house,” said Mr. James. “I scanned everything from my birth certificate to things from my early childhood and little clippings in the local newspaper,” Mr. James said.
“I scanned letters my wife had written when she was overseas. And it kept on mushrooming. I kept finding more and more letters and documents. My wife has kept a diary starting from back in 1965 and I think I have 35 years of diaries scanned.” Vernon had built up momentum and was being productive. What could go wrong?
Mr. James’s son, Stan, a game designer and Internet startup founder, was visiting his parents during a summer break from grad school, when Mr. James offhandedly told Stan about his project. “I was excited that he had done this on his own,” said Stan. “And being the tech guy, I looked his project over.”
Stan saw right away that the resolution was set way too low and the photos were in a virtual heap. In fact, one of Mr. James’s challenges in his project had always been organization. He said, “I didn’t have a system. It was just a hodgepodge.” Stan said, “I helped him put the scans into folders by year. And then shortly after that we had to separate by side of the family.”
After resetting the scan resolution and organizing the files, Stan bought his father a hard drive on which to store and preserve his stuff. And from then on Stan was involved with the project, out of personal and professional interest.
It’s not that Mr. James did anything horribly wrong. In fact, he’s a smart man who he did the best he could with the little information he had. The problem was more a scarcity of consumer-friendly personal archiving information that clearly addressed what Mr. James and millions of others were trying to do — create a digital archive of their personal stuff. And Stan knew that if he and his dad were to work together, Stan had to keep his suggestions and information simple in order to avoid overwhelming his father.
From the early days of the project, Mr. James had diligently typed comments into his photos. Stan was shocked to find that the software Mr. James was using, the software that came with the scanner, was actually engraving the captions right into the photo image, not adding the captions into the back end of the file, as it should’ve. Hundreds of photos were marred with captions. Stan said, “It was almost as if you were to take a Sharpie pen and write on top of a print.
“I searched for a better program and eventually settled on Picasa, partly because it worked cross platform. I was on a Mac and he was on a PC but we could both still use Picasa. And Picasa uses standard formats for writing things like captions and geotag information.”
The James’s found great personal value in adding captions and tags to describe the contents of each photo. Stan said, “I and other family members were starting to ask dad questions, like ‘Who is that person in the picture?’ and ‘Where was that taken?’.”
In fact, captions and tags became so essential to the project that, when Mr. James had surgery on one of his fingers and couldn’t type well, Stan got him speech-to-text software and a headset. “My dad would sit in front of the computer with a little headset and just talk about the pictures as they went by,” said Stan. “My mom would laugh that her husband spent all day in the office talking to himself about the past.”
Mr. James’s relatives helped him identify names and places in the photos. Stan said, “Sometimes my dad will grab some relative and say, ‘Hey, look at this picture. Who is that guy in the background?’. Eventually I wrote some software to share our photos online, where family members could contribute captions and tag people, no matter where they are.” It’s sort of like “kin crowdsourcing.”
The tags not only helped the James family organize and find photos, it helped other people discover them online. Stan said, “A few weeks ago I got a call out of the blue, this guy with a thick German accent, saying that he had found the pictures that my dad took of a base in Germany where he had lived. I’m sure the guy was just Googling “Nellingen Barracks” and found the captions that my dad typed in. And this guy was sort of an archivist for this military installation and he was asking permission to take some of those photos to put on the website he had set up for that base. That was a good feeling that my dad’s work wasn’t only for our family but it could also help the wider community too.”
Stan is frustrated that he can’t easily advise people on how to do a personal archiving project themselves, let alone share one online with other contributors. He said that most of the necessary tools still are not easy enough to use. Stan said, “And on the scanning side, you need to know about file systems and setting up folders and things like that, which is far too complex for most people. And frankly, they don’t need to know about that level.
“But, in general, the easiest way I have seen is to use Picasa locally for file storage. And it integrates pretty well with Google Plus and it will sync your pictures to Google Plus. And you could share the address with people so they can add to it. And the nice thing is that it keeps a tie between the online version and the local version.”
Photos, which stimulate memories more than any other medium, have brought the James clan a little closer as they dig up more photos and scrutinize the content. And sharing the photos online helps preserve them (in addition to Mr. James backed-up originals) by spreading copies around.
Even after digitizing well over 20,000 items, Vernon and Stan James are far from finished. They say there is always more to digitize and there are more people and places to identify. Stan said, “The one thing that we’ve learn from this project is that it’s never done.”