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How to Digitize Your Most Important Documents

While this week’s World Backup Day is typically celebrated most by hard-drive makers and data-storage services, it’s supposed to make people remember to back up their computers. But even if you’re already backing up your digital files, do you have 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.

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.)

Credit…J.D. Biersdorfer

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.

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.

If you don’t have a scanner, your smartphone can fill in. Just browse your app store and download a mobile scanning app. These apps use your phone’s camera to capture an image of the page. That image is saved as a PDF or JPG file to your phone or an online storage site. Be sure to read the app’s privacy policy first so you know where your data is being stored and managed by the company.

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