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 becky.hebert@archives.alabama.gov.

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