Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour of My Digital Scrapbook

assorted photos and notebook
Photo by charan sai on

Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

Recently, while browing around and older server, I unearthed some digital treasure. I found text files going back to 1994 containing about 100,000 words of my writing. Some of it was old journals, some of it what I discovered were proto-blog posts from an era before blogs existed. All of it I had assumed lost, until I came upon it by accident.

The experience was exhilarating. I was delighted to find this writing, and immediately pulled it into my Obsidian archive folders. (Conveniently, it was already all plain text files.) But the experience reminded me of something that I started to do in my Evernote days, and never quite finished: archive old papers and create a kind of digital scrapbook to illustrate the progress of my output over time.

In my Evernote days, I focused primarily on creating digital scrapbooks of my kids’ work. The old files I uncovered reminded me that I wanted to do something similar with my own papers. I started that process shortly after I made my discovery. What I present today, therefore, is a work-in-progress. You are seeing it in its early stages, as I try to figure out how to organize and present the information. Much is likely to change over time.

Practical archiving

I have in my house several good-sized bins of papers going back to my birth. My mom kept all of this stuff, and after their most recent move, several years ago, sent me what she had collected over the years. The boxes contain everything from birth announcements to report cards to school work to drafts of stories that I would eventually sell. They contain artwork I did, scrapbooks I kept, newspaper clippings (as when I had something printed in the New York Times) and letters I’d written and received.

Ten years ago, I would have tried to archive it all, scanning it all into Evernote and then attempting to figure out how best to present it so that I could find it. That it never happened is due entirely to the scope. There are hundreds if not thousands of pages to scan. I kept putting off the task as too overwhelming.

Now, however, I am taking a different approach. Instead of trying to scan in everything, I am capturing what I hope is a representative sample of papers from throughout my life. I’m trying to avoid duplication where I can. I don’t need every piece of artwork, but maybe one or two every few years to show how my artwork changed. I don’t need every report card, or school assignment, just enough to put together a reasonable picture.

A few of the boxes of papers for me to wade through
A few of the boxes of papers for me to wade through

Identifying what to archive

In order to take this more practical approach, I had to figure out what to archive. After some thought, I settled on a kind of “phases of my life” approach:

  • Birth – 1979 (when I lived in New Jersey)
  • 1979 – 1983 (when I lived in New England)
  • 1983 – 1987 (when I lived in L.A. through junior high school)
  • 1987 – 1990 (high school)
  • 1990 – 1994 (college)

I’d review papers and documents from each of those five periods, taking what I felt was a representative sample, and scan the documents into Obsidian.

Format of archived documents

I began selecting and scanning documents, but I fairly quickly, I realized I needed to make a decision: what format should I scan the documents in? My default is to scan as PDFs. I described my reasons for this way back in Episode 5. But as I scanned in documents and started to create the frame work of a digital scrapbook, it seemed to me that image files were better for the scrapbook purpose than PDFs.

There is a clear tradeoff here. As I mention in Episode 5, I scan PDFs as “searchable” PDFs with the idea that once a plug-in is developed to search PDFs in Obsidian, any PDFs that I have stored will already be searchable. It is not as easy to “search” the content of a image file. But then again, these documents are more of a showcase. I don’t really need to be able to search them the way I need to be able to search other types of notes and documents in Obsidian. I settled, therefore, on scanning these documents as image files.

Within Obsidian, while both PDFs and image files can be embedded within a note, only image files, so far as I know, can be resized, which makes it easier to format the scrapbook the way I want.

Creating a digital scrapbook

When adding the images to Obsidian, I was careful to give them names that would make them relatively easy to find later. I used a “date – subject” format, so if a newspaper clipping appeared on July 7, 1977 for instance, the image file might be named “19770707 – Fireworks.jpg.”

Once I had some documents scanned in, the next step was to figure out the best way of presenting them. When I was doing this for my kids in Evernote, I used a notebook for this purpose. In Obsidian, I decided it could be done with a single note for each person or subject. For my own personal scrapbook, for instance, I created a note and divided into five sections (for each of the five phases described above).

Each major section was labeled with the section name. Within each section, I added subsections with brief descriptions and then embedded images that I collected, sometimes with additional text.

A tour through my digital scrapbook

Below are some examples from my digital scrapbook. Keep in mind I’ve only recently started on this and it is still a work-in-progress. The images below are all from a single note, but I’ve picked out sections to showcase here. In practice, this is just a note in Obsidian that I scroll through to browse, like flipping the pages of a real scrapbook.

Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
A photo of me in the newspaper taken at a fireworks display.
The earliest story I have in my papers that I wrote myself when I was 7 years old.
The earliest story I have in my papers that I wrote myself when I was 7 years old.
Math homework.
Math homework.
The good and the bad.
The good and the bad.

Why collect this stuff?

The main reason is because it interests me. I’m fascinated by looking at how I started out and where I’ve gotten to. I like seeing the mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned from them. Some of these papers have also proven helpful with my own kids. If they bring home an assignment that they didn’t do well on, and are disappointed or worried that it is a bad thing, I pull out these papers and show them my own mistakes. That seems to make them feel a lot better.

I’m fortunate that my mom kept all of these papers. I’ve tried to do the same with my kids, although my tendency is to scan their papers in digital form, which makes them all the more accessible for putting them into a digital scrapbook.

Next steps

I’ve only just started to sort through the various papers. I’m mostly interested in getting in stuff I written over the years. I’ve got a lot more that I’ve found and need to wade through to pick and choose what want to include. I also need to play around with how I’ve formatted things. There may be better ways to organize the information. I’ve searched around online and the closest thing I’ve found to what I am trying to do is Stephen Wolfram’s scrapbook.

In Evernote, I’d started digital scrapbooks for my kids, so I am also in the process of moving those scrapbooks into Obsidian. I think it will be fun for them to be able to scroll through their scrapbooks as they get older.

Prev: Episode 27: Use Case: Journal Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

Written on April 25, 2022.

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