Best Practices for Scanning and Storing Historical Documents

9 min read
April 12, 2024

Table of contents

In the ever-evolving fields of architecture and construction, historical documents hold an intrinsic value that cannot be understated. These documents, ranging from detailed architectural drawings and blueprints to old building specifications and correspondence, serve as a bridge connecting modern practices with historical methodologies. They are not only essential for the accurate restoration and renovation of heritage buildings but also offer invaluable insights into the development of architectural styles and construction technologies over the centuries.

As these physical documents age, they become susceptible to deterioration due to environmental factors and the mere passage of time, thus raising the risk of irreplaceable loss. In this context, the preservation of these documents becomes increasingly crucial. Historical document scanning emerges as a vital practice in this preservation effort, enabling the digitization and consequent safeguarding of architectural history. This process not only helps preserve the physical essence of these documents but also significantly enhances the accessibility and distribution of this knowledge, ensuring that it remains available for future generations of architects, historians, and engineers.

With this understanding, we can appreciate the relevance of historical document scanning as a cornerstone for preserving our architectural heritage. This introduction sets the stage to delve deeper into the specifics of historical document scanning, highlighting its importance and application in the architectural and construction sectors.

Understanding Historical Document Scanning

Definition of Historical Document Scanning

Historical document scanning is the process of converting physical documents into digital formats using specialized scanning technology. This technique is particularly important for architectural firms and construction companies, as it allows for the preservation, replication, and easier handling of valuable historical documents that are often fragile and susceptible to damage.

The Significance of Document Scanning for Historical Preservation

Scanning historical documents serves a dual purpose: preservation and accessibility. By converting documents into digital formats, organizations can protect the original papers from further wear and tear while ensuring that the information they contain is not lost to future generations. Digitally archived documents can be accessed easily by various stakeholders across different locations, enhancing research and collaboration opportunities and maintaining continuity in architectural practices.

Types of Documents That Architectural Firms and Construction Companies Might Need to Scan

The range of historical documents that might be scanned includes:

  • Architectural Drawings and Blueprints: These are crucial for understanding the original design intentions, especially during restoration projects.
  • Construction Specifications: Detailed descriptions of materials and methods used in past projects can serve as a reference for modern construction techniques.
  • Contracts and Correspondence: Legal documents and written communications provide context about the construction processes and agreements made during earlier periods.
  • Photographic Records: Photos of ongoing construction or completed projects offer visual documentation that is invaluable for both historical insight and marketing purposes.

By identifying and scanning these types of documents, architectural firms and construction companies can create a comprehensive digital library of their historical resources.

Preparing Historical Documents for Scanning

Steps for Preparing Documents to Ensure They Are Scanned Without Damage

Scanning historical documents must be done with utmost care to prevent any damage to the original materials. Here are the essential steps to prepare documents for a safe scanning process:

  1. Document Assessment: Evaluate the condition of each document. Check for any signs of deterioration like tears, folds, or fading and determine the best handling methods.
  2. Cleaning: Gently clean the documents to remove any dust or debris that could interfere with the clarity of the scan. Use soft brushes or a dry cloth; avoid using liquids or chemicals.
  3. Flattening: If the documents are rolled or folded, they should be gradually flattened. This can be done by placing them under a weight in a humidity-controlled environment to prevent cracking or tearing.
  4. Repairing: Minor repairs might be necessary to ensure that torn pieces do not separate or become further damaged during the scanning process. Special archival tape can be used for this purpose.
  5. Removing Metal Fasteners: Clips, staples, or pins should be carefully removed to prevent scanner damage and to ensure that the entire document is captured in the scan.

Discussing the Importance of Handling and Transporting Documents Safely

Proper handling and transportation are crucial to maintaining the integrity of historical documents during the scanning process:

  • Handling: Always use clean, dry hands or wear gloves to handle documents. This prevents the transfer of oils and dirt that can further degrade the materials.
  • Transportation: When moving documents to the scanning location, place them in sturdy, flat containers that support their entire surface. Avoid bending or rolling the documents unnecessarily. If transporting outside, ensure they are protected from weather elements in sealed containers.

These preparatory steps are fundamental in ensuring that historical documents are not only preserved during the scanning process but are also prepared in a way that maximizes the quality and usefulness of the digital copies.

Choosing the Right Scanning Technology

Overview of Different Scanning Technologies Suitable for Delicate Historical Documents

Selecting the appropriate scanning technology is critical when dealing with fragile historical documents. Here are several options, each with its specific applications and benefits:

  1. Flatbed Scanners: Ideal for high-resolution scans of documents that can lie flat without risk of damage. These scanners provide excellent detail and color accuracy for a wide range of document sizes.
  2. Overhead Scanners: These are used for scanning documents without making contact, which is perfect for very delicate or bulky items. Overhead scanners can capture images of books, large maps, or bound documents while preserving their physical integrity.
  3. Sheet-fed Scanners: Best suited for documents that are in good condition and can be fed through a scanner. These are faster than flatbed scanners but may not be suitable for fragile materials.
  4. Portable Scanners: These are useful for scanning documents directly in archives or in places where documents cannot be moved due to their size or the risk of damage.

Pros and Cons of Each Technology in Terms of Quality, Cost, and Ease of Use

  • Flatbed Scanners:
    • Pros: High quality scans; great for capturing fine details.
    • Cons: Slower process; typically more expensive; limited to the size of the scanner bed.
  • Overhead Scanners:
    • Pros: No contact with the document; can handle larger and more fragile items.
    • Cons: Can be expensive; requires careful setup to ensure image accuracy.
  • Sheet-fed Scanners:
    • Pros: Quick scanning; good for large quantities of documents.
    • Cons: Potential risk of damaging fragile documents; limited to paper thickness and condition.
  • Portable Scanners:
    • Pros: Very flexible and convenient; can scan documents that cannot be moved.
    • Cons: Generally lower quality than other scanner types; can be difficult to manage for uniform scans.

Choosing the right scanner involves balancing these factors against the specific needs of the project and the condition of the documents to be scanned. Cost considerations and the intended use of the scanned images also play a crucial role in this decision.

Best Practices in Scanning Process

When undertaking the task of scanning historical documents, adhering to certain best practices can greatly enhance the quality of the digital copies and ensure the longevity and usability of these digital assets. Here’s a detailed guide on how to approach the scanning process effectively.

Detailed Step-by-Step Guide on How to Scan Historical Documents Effectively

  1. Setting Up the Scanner:

    • Ensure that the scanner is clean and free of any dust or debris which might affect the scan quality.
    • Adjust the scanner settings such as resolution, contrast, and color settings according to the type of document and desired output quality.

  2. Document Placement:

    • Place the document carefully on the scanner bed or under the camera of an overhead scanner.
    • Ensure the document is aligned properly to avoid skewed images and to minimize post-scan adjustments.

  3. Choosing the Right Resolution:

    • For textual documents, a resolution of 300 to 600 DPI (dots per inch) is typically sufficient.
    • For images or detailed drawings, higher resolutions may be necessary to capture all details, potentially up to 1200 DPI or more.
  4. Scanning the Document:

    • Proceed with scanning according to the scanner's instructions. For fragile documents, use gentle methods such as overhead scanning.
    • Monitor the process to ensure that the document is not being stressed or damaged.

  5. Quality Checks:

    • After scanning, review the digital images for clarity, accuracy, and completeness.
    • Make any necessary adjustments in software, such as cropping, rotating, or color correction, to ensure the best quality.

Tips on Resolution, Color Accuracy, and File Formats Best Suited for Archival

  • Resolution: Always select a resolution that captures the necessary detail without creating unnecessarily large files. This balance is crucial for archival storage.
  • Color Accuracy: Use color calibration tools if available. Accurate color reproduction is crucial for archival documents, especially for maps, architectural drawings, and colored texts.
  • File Formats:
    • TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) is widely recommended for archival purposes due to its non-lossy compression which ensures that no detail is lost.
    • PDF/A, a variant of the PDF format optimized for archiving, is another good option, especially for documents that will be used and shared digitally.
    • Consider using JPEG for photographs if space is a constraint, but always keep the highest quality settings.

Implementing these best practices will not only safeguard the integrity of the historical documents but also ensure that the digital versions are of the highest quality and suitable for both current use and long-term preservation.

Storing Scanned Historical Documents

Once historical documents are scanned, the next crucial step is ensuring that these digital files are stored securely and in a way that maximizes their longevity and accessibility. This section covers the best practices for digital storage options and the importance of robust data security and access controls.

Best Practices for Digital Storage Options

  1. Choosing the Right Storage Medium:

    • Cloud Storage: Offers scalability, remote accessibility, and generally robust disaster recovery options. It's suitable for firms that need to access documents from multiple locations.
    • On-Premise Servers: Provides complete control over the storage environment, which can be crucial for sensitive or highly valuable documents. This option requires more in-house management and robust security measures.
    • Hybrid Solutions: Combining cloud and on-premise storage can leverage the benefits of both, providing both security and flexibility.
  2. Redundancy and Backup:

    • Implement regular backup schedules to ensure data is not lost in the event of hardware failure, software issues, or other disruptions.
    • Utilize multiple backup solutions, such as both local and off-site backups, to safeguard against physical disasters like fires or floods.
  3. Data Integrity Checks:

    • Regularly verify the integrity of stored files to ensure they have not been corrupted over time.
    • Use checksums or other data validation methods to detect and repair any errors in the files.

Importance of Data Security and Access Controls for Digital Archives

  • Security Measures:

    • Implement strong encryption protocols for storing and transferring documents to protect against unauthorized access and data breaches.
    • Use secure authentication methods, including multi-factor authentication, to control access to the digital archives.
  • Access Controls:

    • Define clear user roles and permissions to ensure that only authorized personnel can access sensitive documents.
    • Keep detailed access logs to monitor who is accessing the archives and what changes are being made, providing an audit trail in case of security incidents.
  • Legal Compliance:

    • Ensure that storage practices comply with relevant laws and regulations regarding data protection and privacy, especially when handling documents that contain personally identifiable information or sensitive commercial information.

By adhering to these storage and security best practices, architectural firms and construction companies can ensure that their valuable historical documents are preserved securely and are accessible over the long term without compromising their integrity or confidentiality.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

When scanning and storing historical documents, architectural firms and construction companies must navigate a complex landscape of legal and ethical issues. This section outlines key considerations to ensure compliance and uphold the highest standards of professional integrity.

Legal Issues Surrounding the Scanning and Digital Storage of Historical Documents

  1. Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights:

    • Determine whether documents are still under copyright protection. Generally, copyright expires after a certain number of years, but this can vary significantly between countries.
    • Obtain necessary permissions or licenses to scan and use copyrighted materials, especially if they will be shared publicly or used commercially.

  2. Privacy Laws:

    • Evaluate whether any scanned documents contain personal information and ensure compliance with data protection laws such as GDPR in Europe or HIPAA in the United States, depending on the nature of the document and the jurisdiction.

  3. Contractual Obligations:

    • Review any existing contracts related to the documents, which might stipulate specific conditions concerning the use, storage, or sharing of the information contained within.

Ethical Considerations in Handling and Reproducing Historical Documents

  1. Respect for the Document's Integrity:

    • Avoid altering the content or appearance of historical documents in the digital versions, unless necessary for preservation or clarity.
    • Provide context for documents where alterations or enhancements are made, maintaining transparency about the processes used.

  2. Accessibility and Sharing:

    • Consider the balance between preserving confidentiality and making historical documents accessible to researchers, historians, and the public.
    • Implement fair and equitable access policies that respect both the value of the documents and the rights of different stakeholders.

  3. Sustainability Practices:

    • Adopt environmentally sustainable practices in the scanning and digital storage processes to minimize the ecological footprint of these activities.

By considering these legal and ethical aspects, firms can ensure that their document scanning projects not only comply with all regulatory requirements but also respect the historical significance and integrity of the documents. This approach not only protects the firm legally and ethically but also contributes to the responsible stewardship of our architectural heritage.


Throughout this exploration of historical document scanning, we've underscored its importance for architectural firms and construction companies in preserving and utilizing architectural history. Adopting best practices in scanning, storing, and managing digital documents not only safeguards our cultural heritage but also streamlines modern architectural and construction practices.

As we've seen in our case studies, the strategic application of this technology can lead to remarkable outcomes in terms of project efficiency, historical accuracy, and data accessibility. We encourage all firms in the sector to consider how these practices might be integrated into their operations to reap similar benefits.

For those ready to take the next step, we invite you to fill out our "get a quote" form on our website. This is your opportunity to leverage our expertise and ensure that your historical documents are preserved with the care and precision they deserve.