Scaling the Document Mountain

We were standing in “The Archives”, looking at twelve-foot high shelves mounted on rollers so that they could be crammed together.  Each one was filled with row after row of filing boxes.  I had just asked the silly question of whether all of the documents could be scanned to save money on storage.  The Archivist informed me that scanning to Archive Standards would take 37 person-years.  Now, most people aren’t interested in preserving historical documents for future generations of scholars.  All we really want is access to the information on the documents.  Still, staring at row after row of filing cabinets can give you that unpleasant sinking feeling in your stomach.

When you’re faced with a mountain of documents, what do you do?  Here are five practical suggestions:

  1. Clean House First – Some documents are more valuable than others.  If there’s anything that can be easily weeded out, start there.  Make sure you have a document retention / destruction policy.
  2. Draw a Line in the Sand – Start now.  Maybe scanning all the history is too much work or too expensive right now.  You can still contain the problem by setting a date after which all documentation will be scanned.  Later, as you get to know the system, you can selectively go back into history and scan the most important documents.
  3. Different Documents Different Strategies – Some documents are easier than others.  If you have standard forms, for example, where the same information appears in the same place, scanning can actually capture important information, such as company names, as text, as well as creating an image of the document.  That way, you can build a database as well as a library of scanned images.  You may also find that some documents don’t need to be scanned at all because you already have electronic versions that can be transferred, instead of being printed and scanned.
  4. Pick the Low Hanging Fruit – Some departments’ documents are more easily scanned than others.  Accounting is usually well organized, with documents filed for later retrieval and an annual transfer of old documents to storage.  Start there and gain some experience.  Don’t take on the whole challenge at once.
  5. Look for Golden Opportunities – You may actually get the most bang for your buck from the creative side of the business, which may have the most chaotic filing system.  Being able to browse through work done for previous customers can be a fertile source of new ideas for designers and salespeople.

Bottom line:  get someone who knows scanning in to take a look at your situation.  This is a growing area with lots of new ideas and fresh approaches.  When someone says, “It can’t be done,” don’t just take their word.  Do the research.

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