Historical Scanning and Preservation: Archiving The Past

Historical Books and Documents

Organizations in possession of irreplaceable historical/cultural records are responsible for the long term preservation of these documents, emphasizing the crucial role they play in ensuring the survival and accessibility of our shared history.

The fragility of these documents and their vulnerability to the ravages of time make their immediate preservation a top priority. However, these factors also create a number of challenges that can be difficult to overcome.  

For this reason, many organizations choose to outsource the process of digitizing these records to a professional document scanning provider with previous experience scanning historical records.

Historical document scanning is a highly specialized process conducted by trained professionals who help organizations convert aging archives of fragile paper documents and microfiche film into a text-searchable archive of digital files.

Scanning preserves documents digitally for future generations, ensuring the information they contain remains accessible for research, education, and the public interest long into the future. 

In this article, we will explore the importance of historical document scanning, the process, technologies involved, and the challenges faced in this endeavor.

Why is the preservation of historical documents so important?

Historical documents serve as tangible evidence of our past, playing a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of history, culture, and humanity. These primary sources offer a direct connection to bygone eras, making them indispensable for a number of reasons:


Historical documents often contain firsthand accounts, perspectives, and testimonies that capture the essence of a specific time and place. Their authenticity allows us to gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the past, unfiltered by biases and interpretations.

Educational Value

Historical documents serve as invaluable teaching tools in schools and universities, helping students develop critical thinking, analytical, and research skills. By engaging with primary sources, students can draw their own conclusions and form a deeper connection with historical events and figures.

Cultural Identity and Continuity

Preserving historical documents helps maintain cultural identity and continuity. They enable us to trace the development of languages, artistic styles, social norms, and beliefs, revealing the foundations upon which contemporary societies are built. Understanding our roots can foster a sense of belonging and appreciation for our shared heritage.

Inspiration and Creativity

Historical documents can inspire modern-day artists, writers, and creators by providing a wealth of ideas, themes, and styles from the past. Delving into these rich sources can spark new ideas and breathe new life into contemporary works, resulting in an ongoing dialogue between past and present.

Legal and Administrative Importance

Historical documents often contain crucial legal and administrative information that can impact present-day decisions. Land deeds, treaties, and contracts are just a few examples of documents that may have ongoing legal ramifications, making their preservation and accessibility vital for legal professionals and policymakers.

How does scanning historical documents help with long term preservation?

Historical documents that hold valuable information about our past, culture, and heritage are irreplaceable, making their long-term preservation a top priority.

Scanning these documents provides several benefits:

Preservation: Digital images don’t degrade, so a digital image of a paper document can be shared and viewed an infinite number of times without data loss. Digitizing also aids in the preservation of the original copy by reducing the need for physical handling, which contributes to damage and deterioration over time.

Accessibility: Physical documents can only be in one place at one time. Digitization makes it possible for researchers, students, and the general public to access these documents from anywhere, anytime, all at once.

Dissemination: Digital copies can be easily shared and distributed, promoting collaboration among institutions and researchers.

Disaster recovery: Digital archives often serve as a backup in case of natural disasters or other emergencies, ensuring the survival of valuable historical information.

How Does Historical Document Scanning Work?


Before scanning, historical documents need to be carefully prepared. This includes cleaning, removing any fasteners, and repairing damages. Additionally, a plan should be established for handling fragile documents or scanning oversized materials.


The actual scanning process involves converting the physical document into a digital image. Different types of scanners are used depending on the material and its condition. The resolution and color depth are adjusted to capture the highest quality image possible.

Quality Control

After scanning, each image is checked for clarity, readability, and any defects. If necessary, the document is rescanned to ensure the best possible outcome. The goal here is to create the most accurate representation of the original document as possible, not to improve upon it. 

Image Enhancement

Some historical documents may require image enhancement to improve legibility, remove stains, or correct fading. This process is done using specialized software while maintaining the document’s authenticity. In other cases, the enhancement step may be eliminated altogether, especially in cases where precise replication is required.

Indexing and Metadata

Finally, the digital images are indexed and tagged searchable metadata to facilitate easy search and retrieval. This includes information such as the document’s title, author, date, and subject, and important identifiers contained within the documents themselves.

Scanning Technologies Used in Historical Document Preservation

Flatbed Scanners

Flatbed scanners are commonly used for scanning single-page documents, photographs, and small objects. They provide high-resolution scans and are suitable for delicate materials.

Overhead Scanners

Overhead scanners are designed for scanning large, fragile, or bound materials. They use a camera mounted above the document to capture images without direct contact, minimizing the risk of damage to the document.

Book Scanners

Book scanners are specialized scanners designed for scanning bound volumes, such as books, manuscripts, and journals. They often have adjustable cradles to hold the book open at the optimal angle, reducing stress on the binding while capturing high-quality images.

OCR and Text Recognition Technologies

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a technology that converts scanned text images into machine-readable text. This allows for the digital documents to be searchable, making it easier for researchers to find relevant information. Advanced OCR software can recognize multiple languages, fonts, and even handwritten text with varying degrees of accuracy.

File Formats and Storage Options

When scanning historical documents, it is essential to choose the right file format and storage options. Common formats for historical archiving generally include:

TIFF: A lossless format suitable for long-term storage, offering high-quality images and metadata.

JPEG: A lossy format suitable for smaller file sizes but may compromise image quality. JPEG is rarely used by professional scanning companies due to the loss of information that occurs during compression.

PDF: A versatile format that can store both text and images, with options for compression and OCR integration.

To learn more, check out our article PDF vs. TIFF: Which format is best for your next scanning project?

Choosing the appropriate storage solution is also crucial, considering factors such as data security, accessibility, and long-term preservation. It is highly recommended that you store important documents redundantly in multiple repositories to eliminate the chances of lost data.

Digital Archiving and Preservation Standards

To ensure the longevity and usability of digital archives, it is essential to follow established archiving and preservation standards. These guidelines cover aspects such as metadata, file formats, storage, and quality control. Some well-known standards include the PREMIS (Preservation Metadata Implementation Strategies) and OAIS (Open Archival Information System) reference models, and FADGI (Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative).

What are the challenges of scanning historical documents?

Historical document scanning often presents some unique challenges. The fragility of aged documents makes them prone to damage during handling and scanning, while the variety of materials, sizes, and binding types necessitates specialized equipment and techniques.

Other factors like faded ink and water damage can hinder legibility and complicate interpretation. In some cases, copyright considerations may arise when scanning historical documents, requiring permissions from the respective rights holders.

Professional Services and Expertise

Organizations like SecureScan specialize in historical document scanning, providing the necessary expertise, equipment, and resources to ensure a successful digitization project. These services can be invaluable for institutions lacking the resources to undertake such projects themselves, helping them avoid the pitfalls of scanning documents in-house.

Some advantages of hiring an experience professional include:

Careful handling: As documents age, they can become brittle and easily damaged by improper handling. Hiring experienced professionals that use the appropriate tools and techniques can minimize the risk of damage.

Specialized equipment: Professional scanning companies have scanners specifically designed for different materials and document sizes, which ensures that high-quality scans are produced, and minimizes stress on the documents during the process.

Image enhancement: Advanced software can improve image quality, ensuring the digital image most closely resembles the original document in every way.

Collaboration: Working with copyright holders and institutions can help secure permissions and promote the sharing of valuable historical information.

The Future of Historical Document Scanning

Emerging technologies, such as 3D scanning, multispectral imaging, and AI-driven OCR, have the potential to revolutionize historical document scanning. These advancements will allow for even greater preservation, accessibility, and analysis of our collective history.

What Comes Next?

Historical document scanning is a vital process that helps preserve and share our cultural heritage. By understanding the process, technologies, and challenges involved, we can ensure the successful digitization of these valuable documents for future generations.

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