Have you ever glanced at a mound of unopened snail mail and wished it were just a bunch of files stored on a hard drive (or tucked away invisibly in the cloud)? With a scanner and a little effort, you can make piles of mail (and all of your other paper documents) disappear. Creating a digital archive will give you the security of knowing that your most important paperwork is backed up in a digital format, and it will help you keep your physical files more organized as well.
There are two major kinds of scanners available: Flatbed and Document Fed. Their names are pretty self-explanatory. A Flatbed Scanner has a flat glass surface on which documents are placed for scanning. You’re required to lift its lid and manually place documents on the optical glass. You can only scan one page at a time, one side at a time. On the other hand, a Document-Fed Scanner is capable of scanning many pages at a time. You feed it a stack of papers, and it scans them one by one, on one side only, or if it has a “duplex” ability, it can scan both sides.
One kind of scanner isn’t better than the other. Flatbed scanners are indispensible for scanning paper of various sizes and shapes, bound documents like books and notebooks, as well as photographs and artwork. However, if you have a large document of loose papers (such as a lengthy contract or a hefty tax return file), you can’t beat the speed and ease of a Document-Fed Scanner. Combo Flatbed/Document-Fed Scanners are available, too. Here are a few notable models from each category.
Just because the word “Photo” is in the model name of the Epson V300 doesn’t mean it’s not a good option for digitizing paper documents. Its reflective scanning area is 8.5 x 11.7”, the perfect size for a standard sheet of paper. It comes recommended based on its affordable price, the quality of its scans, its versatility (capable of scanning slides and negatives), and the power of its included software (Mac and Windows compatible). This model almost always receives rave customer reviews. If this sounds appealing, but you’d like to have the ability to scan larger 8.5 x 14” documents, check out the Epson WorkForce GT-1500, which is a dual-purpose Flatbed/Document-Fed combo scanner.
If you have voluminous stacks of papers that need scanning, and you’ve decided that a Document-Fed Scanner is the way to go, it’s highly advisable to avoid buying an ultra-affordable model for the job. The mechanics required for accurately scanning a stack of paper are pretty involved, and it’s one area where a lesser product will surely disappoint. You can skip the mistake of buying the wrong model the first time around by spending a little extra on the Fujitsu S1500 the first time (which features duplex scanning). There are separate versions of this scanner available for Mac and Windows. The S1500M is compatible with Apple computers, and the S1500 is compatible with Windows machines. These scanners are praised by their owners for working exactly as advertised. They can scan up to 20 pages per minute, and intelligent features will correct the orientation of the scanned images, skip blank pages and even send your scanned files directly to the cloud platform of your choice.
Maintaining an organized digital archive will require discipline and adherence to new routines. Once you tackle that pile of mail and those old files, you can be sure that a phalanx of new documents will be headed your way. Living a more paper-free lifestyle requires a strong commitment, otherwise stacks and piles will shortly start forming around you again. One approach is to incorporate scanning into your mail-opening routine. Immediately recycle junk mail, scan important letters (and file away paper versions when necessary), and destroy any identity-sensitive mail in a capable shredder.
It’s also important to have a plan for how you’re going to name and store the files that you create. Once you’ve scanned a paper document, you must decide in which file format you’re going to save it. There are many options and opinions on this matter, but a good bet is to save PDF files. Adobe Acrobat offers many powerful tools for handling PDF files (as does Preview in Mac OS X), and it’s about as established as a file format can be, so it’s highly likely that PDFs will remain supported for many generations of computer technology. There are also powerful tagging tools that can be used with PDFs, which will make it possible to search through your digitized paper archive using keywords. Try doing that with your old manila folders!
It’s highly advisable to store multiple copies of your scanned files in separate locations. Keep one copy of your digitized paper archive on a hard drive in your home, and upload a duplicate to a cloud service (Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote, etc). Remember, you’re doing this so you always have a digital copy of your important papers (and fewer paper files crowding up your home). If you don’t make multiple copies of your archive in two separate locations, you run the risk of losing everything in a drive crash, system malfunction, fire or flood. Stay true to the old military saying: "two is one, one is none."
If you need help managing your data once it’s been scanned, there are many commercially available digital document management programs for Mac and Windows computers. A specialized program can really help you stay on top of all of the organization that’s required for maintaining an efficient digital archive. However, while these programs may be helpful for some, they’re certainly not mandatory. If you exercise care in how you create, name, store and back up your files and folders, additional help from a dedicated program isn’t necessary.
If you’ve always dreamed of a future in which inconsequential paper documents were a thing of the past, you can kickstart that reality with a digitizing routine. You’ll have a tidier home office, a clearer conscience and far fewer boxes to schlep around the next time you move. Plus, a scanner and a few hard drives take up far less space than piles of old documents.
Thanks for checking out this B&H InDepth article. If you’re curious about archiving digital images, be sure to check out this series of articles. If you have any questions or paper digitizing suggestions of your own, we encourage you to submit a Comment below.