Sharing family history through ‘scanfests’

August is National Family History Month in Australia. Over the last few years we have seen a growth in community digitisation projects known as ‘scanfests’, which have their origins in genealogical circles. In this post I’ll take you through some examples of scanfests and share some steps you can take to ensure your own scanfest is effectively managed to engage with communities in meaningful ways.

Image: group of people around a table with laptop and photos

Anglo Boer War scanfest at the Army Museum, Keswick Barracks, November 2015. Space was divided with each serving a specific function: to capture administrative details, stories and to scan photos and documents.

The rise of the scanfest

Digitisation has revolutionised family history research because of the readily available, easy-to-use and low-cost digital technological equipment currently on the market, enabling non-professional family historians and museum volunteers to venture with some confidence into digitisation projects.

The result has been an apparent frenzy of scanning and sharing photos and documents amongst local and family history groups. This is the so called ‘scanfest’ which seems to have first appeared in South Australia in 2011 at about the same time I began studying for my Masters in Digital Heritage at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies (by Distance Learning).  I undertook a study of this phenomenon for my thesis in order to create some practical recommendations for developing effective and engaging scanfests in my work as a Community History Officer with History SA.

We can perhaps thank Miriam J Robbins, writer and teacher on genealogy at community colleges in Spokane, Washington State who runs the US blog site AnceStories, for introducing the term ‘scanfest’. In 2006 she began holding a monthly four hour scanfest on a real time blogging platform, although recently she shifted to less frequent sessions on Google Hangouts. Worldwide participants scan family history records and ‘chat’ in an online forum, sharing information about the scanned items and tips regarding the process or equipment and other topics of interest.

Miriam’s scanfests are predominantly about the sharing of images and information and not so much about the preservation of the items being scanned. Maybe this is why the term scanfest is tinged with a slight air of disapproval by some GLAM (that is Gallery, Library, Archives and Museum) professionals as they mutter ‘standards’ under their breath.


Digitisation can assist in preservation as well as increasing access to collections. Digitisation standards and protocols need to be met to ensure the preservation of not only the original documents (ie handling objects incorrectly can cause damage during the scanning process) but also the digital files (consistent conventions regarding formats, file naming, storage and processes need to be observed for continuing long-term access). A digitisation project is costly in time and resources and although relatively easy to execute as equipment becomes more user-friendly, needs to be planned carefully to maximise effectiveness.

But here’s a thing. A scanfest is just as much an innovative conduit for community engagement as a collections management task. It offers opportunities for beneficial engagement between participants and valuable information exchange. Greater meaning is given to the items being scanned not only through the physical digitisation process but the positive, communal environment in which it takes place.

Bringing community together

Involving the use of simple, portable equipment such as laptop computers and scanners, a scanfest might be for a specific purpose such as assisting in the developmental stages of a project. This was at the core of Mount Lofty Districts Historical Society‘s pioneering scanfest in the 2011 History Festival which they described as a ‘social, information gathering event’, to get the newly formed Scott Creek, Bradbury and Longwood History Group off the ground.  It was also exactly the purpose behind Robe’s scanfest of the same year which involved a community group crowdsourcing information, images and stories for Liz Harfull’s proposed book ‘Almost an Island: the Story of Robe’. Similarly the objective of the 2015 scanfest held at the Army Museum of South Australia in collaboration with the South Australian Boer War Association was to update the Anglo-Boer War displays at the museum.Although not termed a scanfest, an event in connection with the Venuti Market Gardeners project contained many of its attributes when participants were invited to a social occasion at Findon Library to bring photos for scanning, and to share stories and items in order to add to what is now an online project.

Image: group of four people looking at photo

Italian Market Gardeners social event at Findon Library, May 2013.

Making it work

As a method of community engagement, the organisation of such an event requires some essential elements to encourage social interaction.  Because the event demonstrates aspects of fun and spontaneity, the scanfest can be likened to the growing trend for ‘pop-up’ exhibitions or galleries. It is similar to Michelle DelCarlo’s concept of Pop-Up Museums as ‘community events where people share a personal object, based on a theme … to create conversation between people of all ages and walks of life’ or Nina Simon’s Radical, Simple Formula for Pop-Up Museums as ‘a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects’. Therefore organisers need to consider location, timing and comfort of participants as well as appropriate publicity and sufficient personnel to encourage meaningful chat.

Location Considerations

  • How easy is it for people to get to you?
  • Is the scanfest area easily identified?
  • Is your location accessible to wheelchairs?
  • Do you have the space needed to accommodate groups of people and what they bring in?
  • Do you have adequate facilities to actually undertake the scanning? (Powerpoints, equipment, a way to back up scans, a way to share widely some of what people bring in.)


  • Will your event clash with other things of interest to your community?
  • How long do you need to allow to process all the photos and share stories?


  • Is there a comfortable waiting area if staff and/or volunteers are busy?
  • Are there easily accessible toilets and other necessary facilities?
  • Will elderly people have somewhere to sit? (Preferably with arm rests.)
  • Is it an inviting space which encourages sharing?


  • Ask specific colleagues (your ‘rent-a-crowd’) or people within your target audience to participate.
  • Notify your local press with a media release, and invite them along.
  • Share your event on social media.
  • Have some examples ready to encourage people to share their own.

An added Web 2.0 online component to the one-off scanfest can both replicate and enhance the collaboration. This might be as simple as making a Flickr site from the images scanned so that others can add images or comment; or a more complex undertaking like building a collaborative Wiki site. Examples of the latter include the Now and Then community heritage wiki websites  embarked upon by three South Australian community museums at Mallala, Gawler and Willunga.

Go forth and scan

So we can see that a scanfest is a unique participatory learning experience blending collection management with community engagement, for creating and curating a new collection around a specific community or communities. If planned appropriately the scanfest has the potential of enriching the lives of individuals involved, the museum, and the community it serves.

As an outcome of my study I came up with this personal definition of a scanfest: a specific event organised by a small local history museum or historical group, where members of the public are requested to bring historic photographs and documents perhaps on a particular theme, to an allotted place and at an agreed time, to scan and create a digital collection together. 

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