Can I Scan and Toss? Six Considerations for a Digitization Project

“If I scan a document, can I toss the paper copy?” This is one of the most common questions that Records Management Section staff hear from state and local government agencies. Perhaps your office wants to migrate records to a document management system or simply wants to move records to a shared drive for easy reference and to save space. Digital tools offer convenient ways for searching, retaining, and disposing of records, but there are a few factors that government officials should consider before embarking on a “scan and toss” project.

(1) Permanent records should be maintained in their original format, whether paper or electronic.

The State and Local Government Records Commissions, which oversee the disposition of all government records in Alabama, require that records designated as permanent be maintained in their original format. For permanent records, the medium is as historically valuable as the message – consider holding the original marriage ledger that your great-grandparents signed, versus seeing a digitized version through a screen. This means that permanent records originally created in paper format must be retained in paper format, and permanent records originally created in electronic format must be retained electronically. Permanent paper records may be digitized to increase their accessibility, but the original files must be preserved.

There is no requirement that temporary paper records be retained in paper format. Governments may digitize temporary records and discard the duplicate paper copies; however, governments must be prepared to maintain the digitized records in an accessible format for the required minimum retention specified in the appropriate Records Disposition Authority (RDA)

Note: As a general rule, local governments should consult the ADAH before destroying records which were created before 1940.

(2) Audits or expected litigation may require original documents to be kept.

Scans created to replace an original document will be considered the record copy of the document and may be subject to audit or litigation. These digitized records must meet standards that demonstrate completeness and authenticity. In some cases, auditors may insist on inspecting original documents rather than copies. Similarly, copied records may be inadmissible as evidence in court. Before copying documents and destroying the originals, consult with legal counsel to ensure that the original documents do not need to be maintained. If digitized documents are acceptable, establish and follow a standard process for digitization that preserves the accuracy and reliability of the records.

(3) Don’t spend time digitizing records that can be destroyed.

The key to an efficient records management system is promptly disposing of records that have met their minimum required retention. Why spend time and money digitizing records or migrating records from system to system that could have been disposed of years ago? These obsolete records create bulk that make active records harder to locate and use. Save time and money by disposing of records that are eligible for destruction before starting a digitization project – but be sure to follow the correct procedures (available here for state agencies and here for local governments). 

(4) Be prepared for the unique challenges of preserving electronic records.

State and local governments which scan and toss must ensure that the digitized records remain accessible and readable for their entire lifespan/retention period. Properly stored, paper records can still be accessible after centuries, but electronic records require more frequent care. Ideally, governments should follow the “3-2-1 Rule” of data storage: at least three copies stored on two different media with one copy being stored offsite. The two different media might be an agency server and cloud storage or an external hard drive. The agency’s files should be regularly backed up to the second storage location. In the event of a technological failure, natural disaster, or ransomware attack, having a backup means your agency’s records are recoverable. 

Moreover, just as the heyday of compact disks (CDs) has come and gone, today’s software systems, storage devices, and file formats will eventually become obsolete. It is not adequate for records to be stored on a computer in the basement which no one can access; records must be migrated to preserve accessibility. Migrating records takes time and resources. To avoid unplanned expenses later, research the costs of migration now.

(5) Digitization is not a replacement for organization.

Many offices digitize records for ease of searching and locating records. Search tools are limited, however, when records are poorly indexed, named, and organized. Indexing is the process of attaching metadata to a record. Metadata may sound intimidating, but it simply means descriptive information about a file such as the name, creator, creation date, and destruction eligibility date. Choose which metadata to capture before digitization to expedite records retrieval, sorting, and disposition. If digitizing files to a database or document management system, leverage its full potential by adding retention periods to records. Users can then filter search results to locate records which are eligible for destruction or receive notifications as soon as records become eligible. Vendors may offer advanced indexing options such as optical character recognition (OCR).

If digitizing records to a simple file system, you can still leverage metadata to work for you. Choose descriptive but concise file and folder names that make the contents of the file or folder clear. Avoid using special characters such as spaces, commas, and periods, which can cause files to become corrupt and irretrievable; instead, use underscores to separate words. Including dates in file names makes it easier to dispose of records when they have met their required retention. Finally, records should be systematically sorted, whether before or after digitization occurs. Create folders based on the records series in the RDA to make retention and disposition easier, or organize by subject, date, event, or other method. No matter the approach, consistency is key.

(6) Perform quality control.

As mentioned in consideration #2, offices that choose to scan and toss (or the vendors they hire to do so) should establish quality control standards that preserve the accuracy and reliability of records. Save scanned images in stable and high-quality file formats. For documents, a resolution of 300 DPI (dots per inch) in TIFF or PDF/A (the archival-quality version of PDF) format is a good choice. Contact the ADAH Records Management Section for recommendations for other document types. Lastly, verify the accuracy and consistency of scans, ensuring all files and pages are accounted for.

The takeaway from these points is that while digitization may be convenient in some ways for managing records, it can also complicate the preservation of records. Still have questions or feel you could benefit from tailored guidance? The Records Management Section offers free training and advice to Alabama’s state agencies and local governments. Reach out to Rebecca Hebert, State and Local Government Records Coordinator, at 334-353-5039 or

Celebrating National Photography Month: Exploring the ADAH Photograph Collections

The Alabama Department of Archives and History has millions of photographs in its collections, spanning from as early as 1840 to the modern day. Whether researching your ancestry or a specific person, place, or subject, a photograph can be an exciting discovery. To celebrate National Photography Month this May, the Alabama Department of Archives and History is providing a bird’s eye view of our photograph collections, answering some frequently asked questions, and sharing some photographic jewels.

Many photos in the ADAH collections have been digitized and made available through our Digital Collections portal ( The Digital Collections contain not only digitized archival materials from the ADAH but also materials from Alabama Mosaic, a network of archival repositories throughout the state. With online access anywhere and at any time, the Digital Collections are a great place to start a search; however, since the online collection represents a small portion of the ADAH’s physical holdings, the way to find most photos is to visit the ADAH Research Room.

The collections below contain a mixture of photographs from the physical holdings and the Digital Collections. Most of these collections have finding aids within the ADAH catalog which can help researchers locate photographs which may not be digitized. To access these undigitized photos, researchers can submit a Digitization and Reproduction Order Form. Reproduction fees vary depending on the requested format and intended use; more information on file formats, fees, and payment options is available on this webpage.

Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection

The Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection brings together in one place digitized photographs from several collections in the ADAH archives (with the exception of the Jim Peppler Southern Courier Photograph Collection and the Alabama Media Group Collection, due to the large size of these collections). These photos cover a wide range of topics, places, and individuals from throughout the state’s history.

Jim Peppler Southern Courier Photograph Collection

The Jim Peppler Southern Courier Photograph Collection includes over 11,000 photo negatives taken by James H. “Jim” Peppler, who worked as staff photographer for the newspaper The Southern Courier from 1965 until 1968. Headquartered in Montgomery, The Southern Courier aimed to implant reporters within local communities in order to provide intimate and detailed coverage of social conditions and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and the southern United States. Peppler captured pictures of everyday life at homes, schools, offices, and social settings, as well as momentous events and influential individuals of the 1960s. All negatives in the collection have been digitized and categorized by topic in the Digital Collections.

Children on Ms. Francis’s front porch in Newtown, a neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama,” 1967.

Alabama Media Group Collection 

The Alabama Media Group (AMG) donated its collection of historical photographic negatives to the ADAH in December 2016. The AMG Collection contains over three million negatives taken by photographers working for The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, and Mobile’s Press-Register between the 1920s and the early 2000s, but the majority of the negatives date from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In the physical collections, the negatives are stored in sleeves with handwritten or typed notes, each representing a photojournalism assignment. The initial phase of the digitization project involves scanning these sleeves and transcribing the notes to provide a searchable index for researchers. With this long-term initiative, select negatives have been digitized and new material is added each month; currently, however, the sleeves make up most of the digitized material.

If you find a sleeve you are interested in, first click on the “Sleeve Number” within the item description to see if any negatives in the sleeve have been scanned. If the negatives have not been digitized, researchers can submit a Digitization and Reproduction Order Form through the ADAH website. If no sleeves relate to your research topic, ADAH archivists are available to conduct research on your behalf for a small fee ($10 for Alabama residents and $25 for non-residents). Submit a research request via the ADAH website or by mail.

Coaches Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan at the 1975 Iron Bowl game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama,”

John Engelhardt Scott Negative Collection, 1941-1989

The John Engelhardt Scott Negative Collection includes over 78,000 negatives created by John Scott, father-in-law of current ADAH Assistant Director and Archives Division Head, Mary Jo Scott! John Scott operated a commercial and advertising photography business in Montgomery from 1947 until the 1980s. The negatives document Montgomery business’s facilities (both inside and out), aerial views, portraits of individuals and families, events, organizations, schools, and churches. Over 8,000 images have been digitized and are available online. The ADAH catalog contains finding aids for both the prints and negatives. These finding aids provide a brief description for every item in the collection (such as the name of the person, place, or event portrayed) along with a date, box number, file number, and negative number.

Man receiving his keys to his new Volkswagen Beetle outside Southern Motor Imports at 501 Montgomery Street in Montgomery, Alabama,” 1962.

Alabama Folklife Collection

The Alabama Folklife Collection contains photos from the Archive of Alabama Folk Culture (AAFC) which were taken by field researchers at the Alabama Folklife Association and the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. A selection of the photos are available in the Digital Collections. The photographs date from the 1980s to 2015 and capture Alabama folk festivals, music and performance (especially bluegrass and gospel music), art, and craftsmanship. The fieldwork slides are housed at the ADAH with an item listing available in the catalog. In the “Item” field, researchers can find the name of the subject and the location/date.

Woman leading a song during the annual Jackson Sacred Harp Sing at Union Grove Baptist Church in Ozark, Alabama,” 1990.

Alabama Writer’s Project Photograph Collection, 1901-1941

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded the Federal Writers’ Project to provide employment for journalists, writers, and college instructors. This collection predominantly contains written material such as ex-slave tales and life histories composed between 1936 and 1940 but also contains photos and postcards taken or acquired for use in publications of the Alabama Writers’ Project. All 1,140 of these photos and postcards are viewable online in the Digital Collections. Photographed subjects include agriculture and daily life in schools, churches, colleges, and universities, as well as many prominent Alabamians.

Main dormitory and library at Alabama College [currently the University of Montevallo] in Montevallo, Alabama,” circa 1930-1940.

Cased Photographs Collection, circa 1840-1913

Common in the mid- to late-19th century, cased photos are typically daguerreotypes or ambrotypes mounted in a shallow, hinged box. These images feature Alabama individuals, families, and Confederate States of America soldiers. While daguerrotypes and ambrotypes were more affordable than commissioning a portrait, they were still relatively expensive for their day. As a result, this collection predominantly features wealthy Alabamians of the era. The collection also includes many tintypes, a more affordable option, but still limited to those with access to the technology. All of the cased photos have been digitized and may be accessed here. The complete finding aid provides an extensive description of each photo, including the subject’s name and the date (if known), information about the subject, any inscriptions on the photo, the type of image, and the condition of the image and case.

Elizabeth S. Mickle Cook,” circa 1850, daguerreotype.

Cartes-de-Visite Collection, circa 1860-1890

First introduced by the French photographer Andre Adolphe Eugene Disdéri in 1854, cartes de visite (calling cards) are photos mounted on individual cards about 2 x 4 inches in size. Until the 1880s, these cards were commonly exchanged in Europe and the United States. All 405 of the cartes-de-visite have been digitized and are accessible here. The complete finding aid is organized alphabetically by the subject’s surname and includes information such as birth and death dates, the subject’s title or occupation, individuals related to the subject, the name of the photographer, and any inscriptions on the item.

Robert H. Knox, C.S.A.,” circa 1860-1869.

Vertical Files

Common at most state and local archives, vertical files contain various documents and ephemera that have historic value but do not fit in any existing collection. The vertical files at the ADAH contain three collections: persons, places, and subjects. Most of the images in these collections date from the mid- to late-1800s to the early 1900s. The persons vertical file is an excellent resource for locating individuals, from ancestors to prominent Alabamians. The finding aid for the persons vertical file is organized alphabetically by surname, with information such as birth and death dates, titles or occupations, and places of residence. The places vertical file contains images of specific locations in Alabama, with a finding aid organized alphabetically by county. Under each county are listed cities, specific locations, or categories of places such as hospitals or schools. Lastly, the subjects vertical file contains images of unidentified people and locations. The finding aid is organized by general subjects which vary significantly, from animals, to flags, to textiles. Note that oversized items appear at the end of the finding aid and are organized alphabetically within each box.

People and wagons outside a clothing store in Huntsville, Alabama,” circa 1863-1865.

Note: Researchers who wish to publish photos from the ADAH collections must submit a Use Agreement Form. Material from the Alabama Media Group (AMG) Collection requires the submission of an additional form. If the photographer is unknown, the ADAH recommends consulting a Fair Use Checklist (for example, from the American Library Association) before publishing or exhibiting the photos.


Society of American Archivists. “Carte-de-visite.”

Society of American Archivists. “Cased Photographs.”

Langberg, Karen. Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes & Tintypes: The Rise of Early Photography.” Skinner, Inc. 18 October 2011.