Despite the increasing amount of businesses using digital platforms, paper still exists in massive quantities in the records management world. The University Records Center here at Mason houses 12,500 boxes of paper records. In terms of the individual sheets of paper, some calculations estimate we have more than 30 million documents.
30,000,000 pieces of paper.
In spite of the large number of boxes and the even more staggering number of individual documents housed therein, University Records Management frequently fields the question, “why can’t you just scan it all?” If we leave aside the question of ownership and confidentiality of the records (no small part of the equation, but this is not the topic today), the largest factor to consider is the cost.
The process of scanning an analog item such as paper for use and preservation on digital platforms is more involved than settling a stack of paper onto our copier/scanners and exporting them into a savable format. Within records management, we are less concerned with the permanent preservation of records than our archival counterparts – most of our records series have a retention period of ten years or less after the records become inactive. Ten years is not so long as “forever,” but in terms of the technology timeline, file formats and applications can and will become outdated. Digitizing a record requires the following:
- Preparation of the documents for imaging (removing staples, flattening, etc.).
- Quality scanning to ensure the accessibility of the information contained within the record.
- Embedding documents with text-search features for e-discovery and other purposes.
- Converting a record into a long-term, unalterable media format, such as the PDF which is the current industry standard for most text-based records.
- Applying appropriate meta-data to the record to capture context, use, and applicable retention requirements.
- A secondary quality check of the previous processes to protect against system and human errors.
- Migration of the digital record to an appropriate, secure content management system.
There are several examples available of published processes agencies have provided to their records staff on the individual steps it takes, such as the EPA’s Digitization Procedures. It is a detailed workflow that often times agencies find so overwhelming that they hire an outside expert to take care of digitization. If the project takes place off premises, there are also issues regarding the price of transportation, security, and availability to add into the final cost estimates.
Determining the exact cost of your digitization projects without quotes from vendors is near impossible. We can, however, scout out the cost of other projects to give readers a idea of what it would cost to eliminate the paper at the University Records Center.
150 newsletters (mixture of staple-bound, newsprint, and flat formats): $3,500 for 140 hours of scanning and post-processing work completed over roughly six weeks || Stanford Libraries Digitization Services
Typically, a scanning project costs anywhere from 7-12 cents per page. || Records Nation Scanning Resources
If we assume that none of the paper records housed at the University Records Center are double-sided, and the cost to digitize is roughly 10 cents a page, the budget for the project would start around $3,000,000. Assuming an average of one box a day by two people, the project timeline would be about a whole year for a team of seven to work on scanning and metadata full-time.
Just because digitization is expensive does not mean that paper is the more economical choice. Storage and paper preservation has its own costs. Within Mason, we have several large grouping of record types that have retention period of 50-75 years. Some of these records are already beginning to fade due to their age (around 30+ years) and the exposure to extreme temperatures in the University Records Center. Considering the circumstances and the cost of paper preservation and storage over such a long time period, it may be the better option to consider digitizing these records for the remainder of their life cycle. It is best to weigh the short and long term needs of your records before jumping into a digitization project.