How should I store lots of paperwork?
May 3, 2007 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I work for a small non-profit. Our office is moving in the next few months and we have a lot of paperwork that we are required to save for 7 years, but this takes up a lot of space. Is there a better way to store this stuff?

We have tons of filing cabinets that are full of crap. One idea that I had was to have our suppport staff scan everything in and save it that way.

Does anyone have experience with this? If so, how do you back up your data?
posted by hazyspring to Work & Money (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd check any regulations regarding scanning vs. paper copies. It sounds ridiculous, but when I was at a publicly-traded company, there were many things that needed to be preserved in paper form (I believe it was things with signatures).

Also, is this primarily a cost or space issue? Is off-site storage an option?
posted by mkultra at 11:20 AM on May 3, 2007

My former employer did this, but it was on a huge scale and had to be done anyway for constant operations use and access by multiple parties, so their methods may not be as useful for you. There are some serious scanners out there for it, though, not at all like the machines you put on your desk top. I think everything got saved in multiple sites on different servers.

They also used a document storage service to keep hard copies sometimes. I think they also provide imaging services and other options, so you might want to check and see if there's something similar available in your area.
posted by dilettante at 11:21 AM on May 3, 2007

You want what is called a "document management solution" and one of the lower-impact ways to get hooked up with one is through your photo-copier vendor.

They can be as simple or as complex as you want.

Note I only have experience with medical document management through specialized vendors, but I know generic ones exist and are readily available.

Basic idea is scan the document to a digital format, then shred the originals. (This requires rigorous backup routines, offsite storage, etc). We had over 2 million documents scanned into our system, with about 1000 per day being added. It was heavenly compared to paper charting.

There are also vendors who will handle this as a service, host the data offsite, and you don't have to do anything.

However, note that this may not be practical in the time frame you are discussing.
posted by Ynoxas at 11:41 AM on May 3, 2007

If you want scan ("image" in the lingo) this stuff in-house, you need to account for a few things:

1. how much paper you have, exactly;
2. how much time you have to accomplish the imaging;
3. how organized the paper is right now;
4. how you want to handle retrieval after it's imaged.

1. You say you have "tons of filing cabinets" full of paper needing imaging. Even if tons means only ten four-drawer 18 inchers or so, that's on the order of a hundred thousand sheets of paper. Anything other than a bulk scanner is out; you're going to need to drop stacks into a feeder n-hundred sheets at a time.

2. You say a few months; assuming aggressively that you wanted to have one person accomplish all the actual scanning in one month of full time work, that gives you 20 days of scanning, maybe running the scanner six hours a day. At, say, 60 pages per minute, you can push through about 20K pages in a day, which would clear a hundred grand in a week or so. So if your tons of filing cabinets is actually more like forty, you'd probably still be able to hit the mark with one person, one scanner and one month.

3. Is the current state of the paper sane? If you scanned each drawer as it is, each stack as it sits on a shelf or desk, and ended up with essentially a digital version of each of those, would you be able to find the documents you need on the rare chance that a suit or something else sends you looking? If not, you need to consider what sort of organization needs to be done, and factor the time and labor for that into your prep work before scanning can actually kick off.

4. Someone needs to locate a piece of paper. Right now, you go to the filing cabinet and sift through the papers in order by, well, whatever. If you were doing the same thing, but with a multipage tiff or pdf, would that be sufficient? If so, great—image your drawers and stakcs (or portions thereof, likely) as is, tag the resulting digital files according to their meaningful position in your existing organizational scheme, and be done with it. The time cost of searching for the doc in the event of need should be balanced against the likely frequency of said need.

If you will only look through your archive for a document once every three months, paging through a thousand-page doc for "Clients An–Ar" isn't a pain point, but if you're looking twenty times a day you might want to invest some time and effort in the imaging process to adding some further organizaing information to the imaged files. How much, and by what means, depends a lot on your budget and needs.


The lofi DIY bulk scanning process would be pretty much as such: lease/rent/borrow a reasonable fast bulk scanner; scan your source pages as largish (250-1000 pp) documents, organized in such a way that you can isolate a need source page to just one or a few such documents come search time; back up the scanned documents safely (offsite mirrors, redundant storage, etc); and then shred the paper.

Whether or not you can do this yourself for less than a vendor may be a question or pricing, ingenuity, and the strength of your existing staff to coordinate the effort. If you've got someone tech savvy enough to handle the scanner setup/config stuff and get imaging software going, and can get a deal on a scanner (your non-profit status might help; shmoozing an "evaluation" wink-and-nudge deal with a scanner vendor would be a coup as well), you might be able to trounce a vendor. On the other hand, if anything goes wrong...
posted by cortex at 12:51 PM on May 3, 2007

And a couple notes:

3) applies whether you do it inhouse or not; and the prep work involved in getting things ready to scan also includes accounting for the phsyical alignment/orientation of odd-sized documents, dealing with removal of paperclips and tapes and staples and overlapping/obscuring material (post-it notes, etc) before scan time. Misaligned cards, envelopes, etc may not scan well and may jam scanners; unremoved staples can cause feed problems as well, and tear the hell out of the paper; ditto for tape.

4) will affect the cost and complexity of your in-house imaging set up, as well as the need for someone savvy and competent to set it all up; if you go with a vendor, it will affect the cost (and perhaps time) required for them to handle the job.
posted by cortex at 1:01 PM on May 3, 2007

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