Going Paperless: Where Paper Meets Bits and Bytes

A client consulted me about going to a paperless environment. His company utilizes several different forms and numerous other documents through the course of daily business. These documents were typically filed in file cabinets after their initial use, never to be used again. The paper copies were retained simply out of fear that their online records management company would either go out of business, taking their data with them, or would start charging for online storage and archiving services.
After evaluating his business needs, I recommended a network based scanner, file server, backup server, and off-site backup solution. Everything installed rather flawlessly. Training was provided and business policies and procedures were updated. He has since destroyed all paper copies of files and has removed a majority of the file cabinets in his business.
This solution made me think about my current state of affairs for document management at my home.


Paperless at Home

Currently, my records management solution at home is best described as piles of papers separated into various categories: Important, bills, magazines, etc. This “solution” does not work well. It excels at making my wife and me irritable when we are trying to track something down. It also creates clutter and we all probably can do with less paper. I have tried in the past to go paperless. I purchased a high end, all-purpose scanner only to have it take forever to scan documents. It was great for photos and scanning a few documents, but large quantities of documents caused me to throw my hands up in the air in disgust.
Things have changed over the past few years, in scanner technology and my home network setup. I have since implemented a NAS (Network Attached Storage) with encrypted off site backup for all of my files.. I decided to try a scanner dedicated to document scanning. This scanner is specifically designed to scan both sides of a document, in color or black and white, at about 50 pages per minute. It automatically saves files as PDFs (or other formats that I specify) and dumps them to a share on my NAS. My laptop makes taking the scanner around the house easy to eliminate piles of papers in minutes. This scanner is blazing fast. Piles are starting to disappear.

Paperless Information Assurance

During this conversion process, there are several things I kept in mind:

  1. Backup of files
  2. Destruction of paper documents
  3. Creating a meaningful filing system

Now that I was going paperless, the paper file was destined for a shredder. I needed to ensure that every paper document was successfully converted into digital format and backed up, preferably offsite. Every few documents I would do a quality control inspection of scanned documents. I configured a dedicated, very low power server to sync my NAS with my offsite backup provider. I selected an offsite provider that allowed me to use my own encryption key and afforded my data other physical and digital safeguards. In addition, I selected a company that provided me with a large amount of disk space for a reasonable price. In this case, I was offered unlimited storage for $150/year (www.crashplan.com). I was using another provider, but was approaching my backup plan’s capacity due to the large amounts of photos I take (photography is a hobby of mine). Once the files were backed up, I kept the files stored locally , online, on the NAS. Some people are simply unaware, but a true backup involves having at least two copies of data.
After the documents are scanned, they need to be destroyed. I bought a high quality, confetti cut shredder. Strip cut shredders should not even be considered (or sold in my opinion) as documents can be easily reconstructed. Cross cut shredders do offer a higher level of security, but I am paranoid. After shredding the documents, they are sent to my fire pit for final destruction for use as fire starter. I always say, “Shred and burn.” If burning is not an option, the shreddings should be disposed of in the trash and mixed with something to make them less desirable to somebody with ill-intentions. Mixing them with table scraps or pet litter is a good option. Did I mention I am paranoid?
Finally, the digital documents are meaningless if you cannot find them. My scanner auto-generates a filename. After doing a batch, I manually go back and rename them and separate into various folders, such as: Bills, House Info, Vehicle Info, Insurance, etc. The scanner does have the ability to create searchable PDFs, but slows the scanning process significantly. If there is a document that I feel is important enough to make searchable, I use my PDF software to convert it later.

Lessons Learned

There were some things that I learned after doing this for a while. If your financial institution, utility companies, or other billers offer electronic billing, switch to it. This will reduce the clutter. Many financial institutions offer several years of online statement storage. You can either rely on them or download the statements and archive them yourself.
Create separate email accounts or aliases for the different types of billers, one for financial, one for utilities, etc. If you use aliases, you can create one inbox thereby making it easier to manage. I use multiple aliases and one inbox to mitigate any spam. If I start getting spam from some company or person using one of these aliases, I can just delete the alias and change it with a few billers rather than all of them. This also allows me to identify who may be inappropriately sharing my email address with third parties.
If you have the money, invest in a true standalone network scanner, such as the Fujitsu N1800. It is expensive, but does not require a computer to use and is very good at what it does. I have an Epson Workforce S50 scanner dedicated to the task of document scanning. It too is quite good at what it does, but requires a computer with a USB port to operate. It does not have to be a dedicated machine for the task, but should be a relatively new machine with about 4GB or more of RAM and at least an Intel i3 or equivalent processor, otherwise you may get frustrated waiting for the computer to process the scans.
Purchase a NAS that is easy to manage and is compatible with all the computers in your house. I chose a Synology DS410 and could not be happier. I tried home brewing my own solution, but it took too much time to configure and administer. Synology devices are loaded with features and they work well. Best of all, they consume very little power, much less than typical dedicated server machines like I use to have.

Conclusion

Going paperless is not an easy task when you have hundreds or thousands of pages that need to be scanned immediately and then destroyed. You need to take the time to design your system so that if disaster strikes, you can recover within a reasonable amount of time. You also need to have a way to dispose of your paper files during your initial conversion and thereafter. However, once you get started and keep up with your system, things will be easier to manage and your life will be less cluttered.

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