If you’re already backing up your digital files, you should consider a backup plan for your one-of-a-kind documents and photos that you have only on paper — like birth certificates, marriage licenses and military-discharge papers.
Scanning copies of your personal papers creates a digital archive that can also be used as a backup, especially if you have the files password-protected and stored in a secure location. And even if you don’t have a document scanner, you can create your personal archive with a smartphone, a few apps and a bit of time. Here’s a guide to getting started.
Step 1: Get Organized
Gather all the documents you want to digitize. In addition to vital records, consider other papers you’ve saved over the years and might want to share, like old letters, certificates, diplomas, newspaper clippings, heirloom family photographs and other sentimental souvenirs tucked away in albums or boxes. (Keep in mind that while the electronic copies of some documents may not be suitable for official use, you can use them yourself for quick reference.)
Scanning a big pile of documents is repetitive, but it goes faster when you have the stack organized and are working in a clean, well-lit area. Spin up your favorite playlist or podcast while you scan, but avoid open beverages nearby that may spill on your papers.
Step 2: Use a Scanner (if You Have One)
Do you have a printer that was sold as a “multifunction” device but that you’ve never used for more than printing? Dig up the manual, because your device can probably scan and photocopy as well. You may need to install utility software or find the scanning function in your computer’s system settings.
Once you have it set up, open the scanning cover on the top of the printer and place your original document or photograph face down on the glass. Close the lid and select the Scan option on the printer or computer screen to create the digital file.
Step 3: Scan With a Mobile App
Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by The New York Times, recommends a few scanning apps for Android and iOS devices, including Adobe Scan, which requires a free Adobe Document Cloud account. Dropbox and Evernote also offer scanning functions in their apps. For identity-related documents, an app that keeps your files on the phone (like the $5 Piksoft TurboScan Pro for Android and iOS) can offer more peace of mind.
Step 4: Scan Old Photos With Your Phone
Some document-scanner apps can also capture photographs, which is handy if you’re trying to copy old prints firmly stuck in ancient albums. Or you could just take a picture of the photo with your phone’s camera and use photo-editing tools to improve the image.
For faded old prints, an app that uses artificial intelligence to capture, clean up and correct color might help. PhotoScan by Google Photos, free for Android and iOS, is one option. The similarly named Photo Scan by Photomyne for Android and iOS also uses algorithms to enhance photos and has a limited free version; the full version costs $10 a month to get higher image quality and other features.
Step 5: Protect and Safely Store Your Files
Identity thieves are always on the hunt for personal information, so password-protecting your files adds a layer of security. Most computer operating systems include tools for locking folders, and commercial encryption programs are another option. PDF-editing programs like Adobe Acrobat DC also include a password feature.
If you want to keep the documents online with Dropbox or a similar service, encrypt them before uploading. You can also stash your files on an encrypted flash drive in a secure location. Wirecutter has a guide to locking down your hardware, including encrypting a computer’s hard drive.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to call up your digital archive for any serious situations. But by planning ahead when you have the luxury of time, you can make sure copies of your documents are there when you need them.