Never Forget Anything: 16 Ways to Record, Document and Archive Your Life

Maximum PC Staff

Even if you haven't split any atoms or won a reality TV show lately, your life is chock full of things that are important to your personal history. Diplomas, photographs, audio or video recordings, software, cameras, receipts and documents. The stuff that’s left behind tells a story of your life. Don't you wish you had some personal memorabilia from your grandparents or your great-grandparents? You know, the normal day to day items that tell a tale of how they spent their time, their money, their vacations and fascinations, which items were important enough to keep, which just turned up randomly in a box. These things serve to make their descendants feel as if they are part of something bigger.  Just think of the ways in which we now catalog, record and archive our lives – Chrome's "Dear Sophie" commercial is a prime example of how modern technology has changed the ways in which we chronicle our lives.

What follows is our take on seventeen ways to get your life archived, in order, and ready to pass on to your kids/nieces/nephews, etc. We're pretty sure there are more than sixteen ways so let us know what we've missed in a comment after the article.

Get Your Stuff Together

After reading the whole article, you'll have an idea of the kinds of things that you've already got that would be a great archival legacy. Some of it is yours,  but other parts might have been supplied by your parents and other relatives. If you've got a box of 8mm film, old negatives, war medals, deeds, wedding certificates and so on, gather them all up and figure out how much work you've got ahead of you. Some families save every bit, bobby, part and parcel from the past while others have pretty slim pickings when it comes to memory bins. Collect what you can and ask around for the rest.  You have to start somewhere, right?

Write/Record/Film Your Own Recollections

When you've got all your items in one place, describe everything you know about each one. Where did it come from? Who had it before you? Tell every detail you can think of, enlisting other members of your family if needed. This will create a kind of family saga that you will add to with your own things. Write it out, tape it or record it on video. Do it now. We'll wait. OK, now we can begin the seventeen step process.

1. Scan Negatives

For around $100.00, you should be able to pick up a scanner that will scan 35mm negatives and slides as well as full size pictures and documents. If you've got the negatives, scan those instead of the photos themselves, since photos will obviously deteriorate over time.  Canon, HP and Epson each make decent scanners. We've used the HP G4010 with great success. If you have 2 1/4 negs or larger, check out the HP G4050. The HP software works well to make sure you get a good image on average but you can adjust the settings for individual negatives that are under or over exposed.

Numbering the negative sleeves according to scheme you are using to save the images will help you organize the negatives for the future.  Itemize everything, save it all to multiple DVDs and remember to write down everything you know about each picture, most importantly the date the photo was taken as well as who is in each one.  HP has tips here and here for basic techniques. A resolution of 300 or 600 dpi is perfect for 35mm negatives.

2.  Convert 8MM Film to Digital

If you've got some old home movies, you're in for some fun when you try to digitize them. Bonus points if you've got a projector! Transferring 8 or Super 8 film to digital video involves a good deal of trial and error. If you don't have a whole lot of material, you can project onto a small white piece of cardboard or your old screen, if you still have it. Use your camcorder to capture the image, checking the result on a monitor. What you will have to tweak is the shutter speed of either the film projector or your camcorder, if possible. Getting rid of the flicker is what it's all about.

If you've got lots of material, consider paying someone else to do it. Prices run up from around thirty cents a foot with volume discounts. You might be able to find a basic telecine unit at a thrift store or garage sale. These use a mirror to project the image onto a ground glass screen. Capturing the image from the screen results in a very bright and perfectly square image.  Again, DVD it with as much information as you can. Do a director's commentary by adding an audio track in your editing.

3. Transfer Data from Floppy Disks

If you've been computing for a number of years, you're sure to have some of your memories on floppies. If you can print your words out, that's great. Scan the pages then use the basic OCR software that's usually included with scanners to read the printed pages. If you've been using PCs since the start, adding a disk drive to your current computer is easy. If you have a Mac in your past, check out Transmac which will read Mac disks on your PC. It's free to use for the first 15 days. If you have other disk formats, check out some of the conversion tools here .

None of these are free but you can try them to see if they can read your files before you buy them. If all else fails, search for support groups for your old computer type. The antique computer community is pretty good about helping people out.

4. Recover Audio from Vinyl Records

Since vinyl records deteriorate with use, now is a good time to archive both your old and new LPs to digital. With a good turntable and Audacity this is a reasonably straightforward, though time consuming, experience. Pro-Ject and Stanton make good quality USB turntables for under $500 but if you’re planning to use your older unit, remember that you need a preamp between the computer and your turntable.

A quality receiver will work well in lieu of a standalone preamp. You'd use the 'tape out'  to feed directly to your computer. Make sure you ground the turntable to the receiver to eliminate any hum. Set up Audacity to use your line-in as a recording source and monitor the input on your computer speakers or stereo speakers. Make sure you have the correct .dll files for MP3 or AAC conversions. You can adjust the volume and remove some of the scratches in Audacity as well.

Much has been written about tweaking LPs in Audacity but the main principle is to archive the best quality recording in a lossless format, FLAC for example. Then, if you have to convert the original recording for other uses later on, either for file size or compatibility, you can relax knowing your original is safe. We prefer FLAC which creates a substantially smaller file when compared to a standard WAV file.

5. Archive Your DNA

There are companies that will create a pretty cool piece of wall art from a graphical representation of your very own DNA, DNA 11 being just one example (althought it'll cost you roughly $200 plus shipping). While you're at it, get a little box and put some of your own DNA sources in it. Hair roots, bits of skin, blood are all good sources for it. Yes, it's gross but your roots may be important to someone down the road. We can envision a DIY kit for DNA retrieval in the near future. The little box of you might become a science experiment for your grandchildren!

6. Sing the Body Electric

If you've got a double jointed thumb or crooked front teeth, or some other unique physical aspect, take some photos and include a description.  Some of what you record is for fun (green eyes, for example) but you should also let your descendents know if you have any ailments which might affect them. A full medical history would be a great resource but, for now, write or record as much as you can about yourself and your ancestors. Include types of cancers, heart disease, anything that you know. When genetic profiling becomes more mainstream, this information will help your children’s children’s children.

7. Convert V.H.S. and Beta

If you've got family movies on any kind of video tape, start the transfer now, again - before the tape deteriorates. VCRs are disappearing rapidly, as are 8mm and VHS/VHS-C  video camcorders.  One of the quickest and best capture tools is the Diamond One Touch Video Capture unit (which goes for under $50.00).  All you need is the audio/video source and a USB port. Play the tape, record what you want and then edit it with the Ulead software that is included or DIVX/MKV it and make a data DVD. You can also output directly to DVD.  Remember to record dates, places, names and events in a text file that you burn to the DVD.  Once you're finished archiving, you can use the capture unit in lieu of a monitor for retro computing or analog game units, anything that has a composite or S-Video out.

8. Use Google maps to Plot Your Past

Where you've lived is part of who you are. Use Google maps and streetview plus the screen capture key to make a record of the residences in your past. Save the jpegs along with dates and descriptions of each crib. Consider this your George-Washington-slept-here moment. Make a map of your common routes and pin point places along the way using Google Street View or Google Images to annotate. Commemorate the pub crawl where you met your wife, or leave the kids a fake map to buried treasure, there are a lot of fun options here.

9. Remember the Wonder Years

Google maps works to document schools you've attended as well, but scans of report cards and pictures of uniforms or prizes won is striking gold. Remember to put names to faces in class photos as well as any memories you have of those good old days. If you have old school uniforms, hats or jackets, be sure to take pictures of them, too.

See if you can gather up old buddies to recreate old photos of you, or get everyone to write a letter with their favorite memory.

10. Create Your Own Video Autobiography

Grab your camcorder and wander around your house making sure to highlight important fixtures or rooms as you go. Nothing is better than a live tour of your home, full of descriptions of rooms, additions and items that are memorable.

Once you're done, see if you can edit in some of the old video material that you've captured in previous steps. Take your time and use good camera technique. This will make all the difference for future viewers. Once you've done your own place, consider adding additional locations (with permission). Maybe head over to your relatives' houses and do the same with them. Make it a family event and you'd be surprised at how much fun it can be. Don't wait until you’re missing a family member, do it now and reap the benefits of having them always nearby.

11. Make a Mix Tape (on DVD)

While you've digitized your LPs in a previous step, why not make a DVD that has all of your favorite songs on it? If you can't find the song in your collection, use Freecorder to save it from YouTube or any other online source. Again, a text file which describes why these songs are important to you is a must.

Consider making a couple different playlists to create a chronologically accurate soundtrack to your life. Sure, it’s a little High-Fidelity style uber-geekery, but can you imagine the impact photos would have with sound? Just think about looking at a photo of your parents in their heyday, and listening to their favorite tracks – it really puts a context and a feel to the moment.

12. Immortalize Your Work History

If you've got pay stubs and employment records, scan them and add them to the collection. Details of your job, your wages, letters of recommendation (or…reprimand as it were) as well as addresses of where you worked would be interesting, too.  Some of your jobs may not be around in the future and your recollections will be very interesting for future generations. Throw in your old nametags, training manuals, local advertisements from the business, menus, etc.

13. Commemorate Cars, Bikes and Motorcycles

Computers and cars are linked, somehow. Those of us who are hardware addicts tend to be car addicts, too. Even if you didn't think to take photos of the cars in your life, check the Internet for pics and save them with written notes about the details. How much did the car cost? What was the gas mileage? Did you name it? Take it to the drive in? Cross country road trip that only got as far as Arizona? Repair bills and mundane things like gas receipts and traffic tickets will make for interesting conversation later on….or maybe you don’t want to tell that story about rear ending that cabbie to your kids.

14. Extra! Extra! Preserve the News!

Regardless about how you feel about the future of print, the fact remains that much of our local and national history has been captured on the front pages of newspapers. If you've got old newspapers from special days in your past, here's a link to the Smithsonian mag that gives you the tips you need as well as links to archival tissue and folders.


Much of the other material you collect will be on paper, too, so use these tips to preserve important and irreplaceable documents. Think marriage licenses, birth certificates, etc. Scanning all of these things is important, too. Don't forget to digitize as much as you can.

15. Family Tree

There has been a resurgence in the last decade or so in creating family trees. With online services, such as Family Search , searching for long-lost relatives can be fun and rewarding. Check around to see if any of your relatives have done a family tree in the past then add to it or start your own. Depending on your background, you just might be able to trace your roots back several hundred years or more. Some countries, China for instance, have family records that go back more than five hundred years.

Scientists have recently been able to graph the spread of humanity using Y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA, the former is from the father, the latter from the mom. Depending on the details you are interested in discovering, 23andMe will link you up to your genetic past for $99 and a year's subscription at $9 a month. You can get tips on your ancestry as well as your current health risks. Faces of America, on PBS, uses this company for tracing the roots of their guests. Fascinating stuff that will be an invaluable part of your archive.

16. Honor Military Service

Whether or not you yourself have served in the armed forces, someone in your family almost certainly has. Now is the time to document that history with photos of the uniforms and mementos as well as detailed notes about bases where you or your relatives might have been stationed, countries visited, training, etc.

Creating memorial cases for flags and medals can be valuable time for you, surviving family members, as well as those who have been in the service of their country. Unfortunately, many of these items are still around but don't have any history with them. Often military personnel don't really like to talk about some parts of their past, or cannot. Convincing them to relive what bits and pieces of their service they’re able to will go a long way to getting a more complete history of your family's military past. Do what you can, act with respect. Your future relatives will appreciate your efforts.

Final Thoughts

Going back through the past can be a rewarding experience for you and your family. Many of these collections would work well in a stand-alone Powerpoint presentation or a browseable html page. Here's an example of ultimate archiving .   We've given you some ideas but if we've missed something or if you know of a better way to do parts of this, let us know in a comment. We're open to suggestions, criticisms and, of course, praise!



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