Digitizing Your Research
Bit by Bit

A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Ancestry Magazine

By Mark Howells

Family historians spend a great deal of time and effort recording information about our ancestors. When working from original sources in libraries and archives, we transcribe or photocopy the information of interest and add it to our research notebooks. Research time at the repositories of original source materials is usually limited due to closing times, travel requirements, and the pressures of our non-genealogical lives. Genealogists often take lots of notes or make copious photocopies at a research site such as a library in order to maximize their time available "on site". We save the review, organization, and data entry of the information obtained for later when we're "off site" - when we are no longer on the repository's schedule.

You can often recognize a fellow family historian in a library just from what we carry. We have large notebooks stuffed to overflowing with notes and papers. We have rolls and baggies of coins to feed into the photocopiers. With all the information capture which we do, wouldn't it be nice if there were a way to simplify and expedite our efforts? Aids to automate the mundane yet critical task of data capture from original sources are increasingly becoming available to the family historian. This article will review two different products which may help automate the data capture process for genealogical research.

A Scanner That Goes With You

Hewlett-Packard has recently introduced it's CapShare 910 - a hand-held portable scanner which can hold the digital images of up to 50 letter-size documents at once. This device's name is indicative of what it does - it can be used to CAPture and SHARE digital images. The source documents may be handwritten, printed, or images of any kind - charts, maps, photographs, etc. The battery powered unit transforms written documents into digital images in about 6 seconds after scanning. Perhaps the CapShare's best feature is that it does not require being connected to any other device in order to scan images. It need not be tethered to a PC or laptop to capture digital images of documents. The CapShare 910 is about the size of a portable audio CD player and weighs under 13 ounces.

[Image of theHP CapShare 910]

The HP CapShare 910

After the CapShare has captured documents, the digital images of those documents can be downloaded to a printer to produce a hard copy. Alternately, the CapShare can send the documents to a PC or laptop for further processing such as attaching the digital images to an e-mail message or for conversion into a word processing document by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software.

How It Works

The data capture end of the CapShare 910 is a 5-inch wide contact image sensor which has a resolution of 300 dpi. Swiping the device down part of a document will record a digital image of a 5-inch wide swath of the document. Multiple swipes to cover the entire document are then stored in the CapShare's capture buffer. After the entire document is scanned, two integrated circuits in the unit align the swaths and adjust them to form a single digital image of the entire document. The images are stored in a compressed format until downloaded from the CapShare. The resulting digital images are then in standard Portable Document Format (PDF) files. PDF has become a generally accepted standard for electronic document distribution and they can be viewed by anyone with a freely available Adobe(r) Acrobat Reader software (see http://www.adobe.com/supportservice/custsupport/download.html).

[Image of the CapShare 910 in use]

The CapShare 910 in use

CapShare 910 Applications For Family History

All family historians will immediately recognize the CapShare 910 as an alternative to using a photocopy machine at a record repository. No more will rolls of nickels, dimes, or quarters be require in order to make copies from resources stored in the open stacks! And no more piles of photocopies stuffed in research notebooks. An additional benefit of the CapShare's ability to swipe swaths of documents is that large ledger books or bound volumes of large newspapers no longer have to be wrestled up on to the top of the photocopier in order to be copied. Be sure to check the repository's policy on scanning their materials before assuming that it is allowed. Some libraries and archives do not permit this new method of data capture. It is always polite to ask first.

Sharing photographs with fellow family members is a natural part of what genealogists do. Any scanner, either the tethered hand-held or the flat-bed variety can be used to scan photographs or other images. The advantage of the CapShare 910 is its portability. While visiting Aunt Ethel, you can take treasured family photos down off the wall and scan them on the spot. The inscriptions in the family Bible which is also in Aunt Ethel's keeping can also be scanned. This is especially handy when Aunt Ethel won't let these treasured family keepsakes out of her sight.

Further, the ability to scan photographs with the CapShare 910 and attach them to e-mail messages as PDF files greatly simplifies and reduces the expense associated with sharing family photographs. No searching for the negative filed away somewhere, no photo-reproduction fees, no envelopes marked "Do Not Bend". Just scan the photo with the CapShare, transfer it to your PC, attach it to your e-mail and send it to your Cousin Bob. Bob can view the picture with his free Acrobat Reader software. In addition, many genealogy software programs allow for scanned images to be attached to the records of individual ancestors. This allows you to electronically "file" one or more photographs of an ancestor in the same location as all the other research facts you've accumulated for them.

Once captured as digital images by the CapShare 910, printed documents such as wills, biographies, or obituaries can be converted from image files into text files by downloading the images to your PC. This conversion is accomplished through the use of any OCR software which accepts PDF files as input. As OCR software is not 100% accurate in its translation of scanned documents, a prudent researcher will proofread the resulting text file by comparing it to the original. Once the text file has been checked, the corrected text can then be copy as a whole into any genealogy software program. In this way, a text copy of an ancestor's complete obituary may be stored in your genealogy software in association with other information on the ancestor's death such as date, cause of death, death certificate number, etc. There are undoubtedly more applications for family history purposes for this portable scanner from Hewlett-Packard. For any situation where a digital image of a document is desired and a PC-connected scanner is unavailable, the CapShare 910 is well suited to the task.

Digital Ink On A Pad of Paper

When family historians discover a new documented fact about our ancestors, we dutifully write it down in our research notebooks. When we're armed with laptop computers, we can type our findings into our genealogy software directly. However, most of us still use paper and pencil to initially record what we find when we're in archives and Family History Centers(tm). In our hobby, we take LOTS of notes. The next device of interest is specifically designed for note taking.

The CrossPad is from the company which makes the famous Cross pens. It is a battery powered electronic notepad which utilizes a regular pad of paper. Using the special pen provided with the CrossPad, notes can be written normally in regular ink as on any pad of paper. The special pen transmits a radio frequency to the CrossPad which records the strokes of the pen digitally using receivers under the pad of paper. The CrossPad captures digital images of up to fifty pages of note and drawings. Compared to palmtop PCs or Personal Digital Assistants, the CrossPad requires no special training to write notes. Notes on the CrossPad are written just as you would write them on a pad of paper with a regular ball point pen. The CrossPad looks slightly thicker than a standard notepad clipboard and comes in two styles for two sizes of paper notepads- 8&1/2 x 11 inches or 6 x 9 inches. The units weigh 2.2 pounds and 1.5 pounds respectively.

[Image of the CrossPad and Radio Frequency Pen]

The CrossPad and Radio Frequency Pen

Connecting the CrossPad to a PC or laptop, the digital images can be downloaded into an OCR program for conversion into a text file. The OCR program provided with the CrossPad has the ability to "learn" a user's handwriting style to better translate the hand written word into correct text. Again, no OCR translation is perfect so the text must be proofread and edited in order to match what was written. Once the conversion from image to text file is complete, the CrossPad has provided the notes in three forms. First, the original paper copy of the notes have been rendered in regular ink. Second, the digital image files of the notes are available for hard copy printing, attaching to e-mails, etc. This is particularly handy for diagrams or sketches which don't convert into text files. Finally, the converted text file copy are ready for further processing into a word processing program or more specifically, into a genealogy software program.

[Image of the CrossPad showing both drawings and writing]

The CrossPad showing both drawings and writing

CrossPad Applications For Family History

As obsessive note takers, the CrossPad is a natural tool for genealogists. The CrossPad system's ability to transform hand written notes into text files on a PC can eliminate the additional step of re-keying our notes into a word processor or genealogy software program. This feature is ideal for lengthy transcriptions of records where scanning or photocopying is not an option. Original deed books found in county courthouses whose bindings may be too fragile to withstand photocopying are a particular example. Once translated into a text file format, it is a simple matter to copy and paste that text into a genealogy software program. No re-keying is required and this is the true power of the CrossPad for family historians.

An often overlooked part of genealogy note taking is making sketches, maps, and diagrams. At cemeteries, we often must make sketches of the graveyard layout in order to record the exact location of a plot. Similar hand-drawn maps can be created on the spot when "walking the ground" based on an ancestor's land records. The CrossPad allows a researcher's hand drawn maps & diagrams of to be saved and shared electronically as digital images. Cousin Bob will, no doubt, be fascinated to know that your shared fifth great grandfather is buried two graves north of the large gorse bush next to the road.

Tools To Fit The Task

Both the CapShare 910 hand held scanner and the CrossPad digital notepad can assist the family historian in the task of data capture. These devices are single-purpose appliances designed to provide input into other software programs. For the genealogist, the obvious receiving programs for their input are genealogy software programs.

Neither device is inexpensive - their prices being in the range of other types of peripherals for personal computers (see side bar). However, their true cost should be more accurately compared to the value of the time they save in the process of data capture. Not only is research time at a premium while "on site" at a repository, but recording what's been found isn't the most exciting part of the ancestor hunt. The really exciting part of family history research is the "discovery phase" - finding clues on the trail of our elusive ancestors. The recording of those clues is somewhat less exciting and more of a chore. Time saving devices like the CapShare and CrossPad which help reduce the time spent on the less exciting elements of genealogy provide more time for the fun stuff.

For more information on the HP CapShare 910, visit http://www.capshare.hp.com/. The CapShare 910 retails for $699.

For more information on the CrossPad, visit http://www.cross-pcg.com/crosspad/index.html. The CrossPad (81/2 x 11 inch paper) retails for $399.95 (less a $50 mail-in rebate) while the CrossPad XP (6 x 9 inch paper) retails for $399.95.

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Digitizing Your Research - Bit by Bit
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated July 15, 1999

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