A rebuttal to HP’s “Scan and share children’s artwork” blog post

Dear Hewlett Packard,

I love your scanners and printers. I really do. (Seriously, I own two of each.)

But please, for the love of God, stop throwing around tips about how to “archive…priceless works of art” or “scan like a pro” as though you have any idea what those tips should actually be — because you don’t.

Everyone knows that your blog posts full of “helpful tips” are really just a ploy to sell your products. And that’s all well and good; any idiot should realize that when a company tries to give you “hints” (or recipes or coupons), what they’re really doing is trying to sell you something.

And I’m not knocking the ideas, necessarily. I’ve seen some neat ideas – including HP’s “Scan and Share Children’s Artwork” article I’m about to rip apart. (And my chicken parm recipe came from the back of a spaghetti sauce jar, and it’s pretty darn good.)

But here’s a thought: don’t go around masquerading as a “pro” to people who don’t know any better.

*****

Dear People who are not Hewlett Packard, if you want to know how to scan and preserve your kids’ artwork, don’t ask HP, ask an archivist. And oh wait, I just happen to be one.

So here are some rebuttals to what HP suggests in “Scan and Share Children’s Artwork.” I don’t claim to have all the answers on this; I have never attempted to archive children’s artwork. But I’m pretty confident that anything I suggest is going to be better advice than what your scanner’s marketing department dreamed up.

*****

And now…the much-anticipated flaying of HP’s article “Scan and Share Children’s Artwork.” (And if there’s time, I’ll take a vicious stab at “Quick Tips for Scanning Photos,” too.)

First off : I don’t really see a problem with the idea of scanning your kids’ artwork, with several caveats:

If you intend to save the original “forever”, can you digitize (either scan or photograph) it without harming it? Will scanning this artwork harm your scanner? (I’m imagining friable media such as crayon flaking off on your scanner; sounds like a mess to me.) And can you even capture the true essence of that macaroni-made man they show in the article, with a flatbed scanner? It’s 3D!

Maybe you don’t care about keeping the original safe “forever”. Perhaps the whole point is that you want to make a digital facsimile so you can save physical space by discarding the originals. (I’m not necessarily recommending this. Even HP didn’t flat-out suggest throwing away the originals, although they plant the seed of this idea about three different ways with phrases like “reduce clutter,” “avoid throwing out favorites” [emphasis mine], and “free up more space in your home”.) But anyway, if you DID want to digitize the art so that you could feel better about throwing out the originals, wouldn’t you want to make sure you digitized at a high enough quality to achieve your goal of preserving as good a copy as possible? If yes, then HP’s guidelines are not strict enough.

OK, let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way now : I’m going to rag on the “Quick Tips for Scanning Photos” blog post after all. It’s one of my top three annoyances with this article. (The other two are: the casual way they throw around words like “preserve” and “archive” and the digital storage recommendations they make.)

I don’t like the way they casually suggest making corrections to color, fading, or blurriness, especially letting the scanner “auto correct” things. Maybe this is what “the pros” in other professions – like photography – might do. But when you are throwing “archive” into like every other paragraph, you are in my world now, and that’s now how we roll as digital archivists. You should be striving for a true representation of the thing you are digitizing. Hey, if you want to tweak the color or something on a secondary copy, that’s one thing, but I think it’s a bad idea to not keep a copy of what the original ACTUALLY looked like, especially if you are going to throw the original hard copy away to “free up more space in your home” (because guess what, HP, the only way to free up more space in your home is by actually removing things; I’m pretty sure it’s the law of conservation of mass that says that just rearranging stuff doesn’t change how much of it exists).

I’m pleased that they at least acknowledge that TIFF files are the archival format, and they suggest using TIFF “if you’re uncertain how you’ll use it in the future” (and may wish you had a higher quality file). But they blew it when making scan resolution recommendations. I’m not even going to justify the suggestion of 75-100 DPI for Web use with a response; and the recommendation of 300 DPI for “printing or archiving” kind of makes me want to punch them in the face. MAYBE if we’re talking about a REALLY big piece of art. But then, if it’s big enough to justify only scanning at 300 DPI, does HP even make a consumer-grade flatbed scanner big enough to do that? I’m pretty sure they don’t.

If you are scanning Junior’s artwork, and you want to do it “like a pro” — like a real archives pro, not like the imaginary slacker that HP is talking about — then you should be scanning at about 600 DPI, saving as TIFFs, and not muddling things up with any color correction or auto-correct (figure out how to turn all that crap OFF in your scanner software). And no whining about the file sizes either. If you want to do this, do it right. Go big or go home.

Okay…now back to “Scan and Share Children’s Artwork.”

Here’s some food for thought : In most cases, a digital copy is never going to be as good as the original.

The only exception I can think of it is if your kid made a collage of newspaper clippings: if you scan it today while it’s new, that scanned newsprint is likely to look a whole lot better than the original in 10 or 20 years.

But oh wait, the only way you’ll ever know that for sure is if your digital copy (and the original) both survive for the next 10-20+ years so you can compare them. (Unless you have the equipment & know-how to conduct one of those artificial aging experiments – you know, the one that “proved” that microfilm should last 500 years.)

So, how are you going to make sure the digitized version of your kids’ artwork is safe?  Well, once they are digitized, I recommend following something along the lines of what I suggested in my “Save your digital photos” series (parts 1, 2, and 3) [June 2012].

HP recommends burning the image files to DVD and to “make two discs: one for archival purposes, and one to share with Grandma or other friends or family.” OK, I will give them credit for sneaking in the concepts of LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe) AND geographic dispersal, whether they knew it or not, BUT I would still take this a little further. I don’t like optical media (CDs, DVDs) because they seem to go bad faster than real hard drives, even if you don’t use them. But they are easy to label and store. If you want to go that DVD route, make two copies FOR YOU and store them separately, AND give that third copy to Grandma (who hopefully lives in another state and not just across town?). I would also recommend backing up online using something like Dropbox, Carbonite, Smugmug, Shutterfly, or Snapfish (no I’m not selling these, they’re just ones I thought of). [There’s more about this in the “Save your digital photos” blog posts I referenced earlier.]

Finally, the one last statement that really ticked me off about this article: “Digital files or prints of your children’s art pieces last longer than the pieces themselves.” Uh…there’s a statement that requires some qualification, if I ever saw one. The digital files MIGHT last longer than the original IF you follow an appropriate regimen of file storage and backup. And I think it bears mentioning that any archivist will tell you that the original is always better than a digital copy, because you can’t get a truer representation of the original than THE ORIGINAL.

*****

While there are many things about these articles that really pushed my buttons (clearly), I would like to end on a positive note.

I reiterate : in theory, the suggestion of digitizing your kids’ artwork is a good one. (You know, assuming you don’t damage the original or your scanner in the process.) I like the idea, and I hadn’t really thought of it before (maybe because I don’t have children so this hasn’t come up in my personal life).

I really like the suggestions they made for why you might want to do it:

  • To share one piece of art with multiple people, such as self, both sets of grandparents, etc. (in Archivist-Speak: increased access);
  • To “ensure the original won’t be worn and torn after show and tell” (in Archivist-Speak: to reduce handling on the original while still allowing access – welcome concepts in Archivist Land); and even
  • To reduce clutter — this one I can get on board with, because if it means you can take 50 drawings off the fridge and put them neatly in a box somewhere, instead showing them off in a photo frame or on Facebook (thus still placating your kid that you are proud of their accomplishments – does Facebook Wall count as a virtual refrigerator door now in that sense?), then I think that’s fine.

I love that they reminded people to “write down as much information as you can about each piece” (in Archivist-Speak: YAY METADATA!), such as title of work, date of completion, and other anecdotal information (in Archivist-Speak: YAY PROVENANCE!).

Those other ideas about making a photo book, tee shirt, or thank you notes (to name a few) were also pretty awesome. Great ideas.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is : The idea of scanning kids’ artwork is basically good, in my opinion. What I disagree with (heartily) are the recommended specifications for the project’s implementation.

Okay, I’m going to go put my soapbox away now.

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