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Start a Scanning Project

How to Start a Scanning Project

We’re all looking to reduce the piles of paper in our office and the never ending build up of documents across our desks. However, striving for a paperless office isn’t just about buying a scanner and scanning everything in sight; you’ll need to plan your project (small or large) carefully, taking into consideration the cost, storage, and access to records in both paper and electronic format.  Above all, make sure that the end result will improve access to the information you need, not just reduce the amount of paper in your office. Here at HMS it is also important to make sure that you are following the University guidelines and retention schedules that apply to your records.

If your office is considering such a project, please use this as a guide to your planning discussions. The Archives and Records Management staff at the Countway Library has assisted with many paperless office projects around HMS and would be happy to address questions, concerns, and share what we have learned. Please contact us for an initial conversation about achieving a paperless office at:

Where Should I Start?

It is important to start your project with a solid understanding of your goals for going paperless. Consider who needs to access the information and if moving all of your records to an electronic format really makes the most sense. In very few cases is it necessary to scan every scrap of paper both in your office and in your records storage account. You can even commit to a paperless office without retroactively converting everything to an electronic file right away; consider “going paperless” starting from today onwards.

You may find it helpful to assess and document your current internal records management processes before evaluating how a paperless strategy would impact those processes. At any rate, you’ll still need to decide what to do with the paper you still have. As the custodian of institutional records it is your responsibility to make sure you are maintaining these records in compliance with the Harvard University General Records Schedule – this means keeping records as long as necessary (and no longer!) or maintaining records of long term value to the University and eventually transferring them to the Archives. Shredding isn’t always the answer for those piles of paper. Storage for paper stored off-site is relatively inexpensive, and there may be reasons why it wouldn’t make sense to scan paper records under retention policies that may call for destruction in just a few years. Paper archival records are still accepted (and in some cases preferred) by the Archives. Consider being in touch with your local archivist about archival records that you wish to scan, but are still in paper format. Contact us at for more information on archiving or applying retention schedules to your records.

In terms of the big picture, you will need to consider how you will go about converting your paper records to electronic files. Are you going to handle the project in house with current staff? Or is outsourcing a more feasible option?  Making this decision can be difficult since scanning and indexing your records takes time and attention to detail. When examining the options, think about the following:

In House Scanning

  • Does current office staff have the time needed to accomplish your project goals?
  • Is your current staff trained in scanning procedures?
  • Do you currently have the equipment needed to complete the project?
  • What are the costs associated with scanning in house?

Outsourced Scanning

  • What is your timeline for the project? Is your vendor able to work with your schedule?
  • What are the little details, e.g. removing staples, keeping records in their original order, etc., that you need to ensure are reflected in your contract?
  • Do you have sensitive information in your records? Oversized materials? Many vendors utilize special equipment for handling a wide variety of document types (including confidential records) and sizes.
  • Do you have a need for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) so that you can search your documents for specific words or phrases? Will the vendor be scanning and providing an index to your records? You will need to work with your vendor to make sure your contract specifies the complete scope of the project.
  • Be sure to ask your vendor about ALL the associated costs. Scanning projects are often billed on a per-sheet basis. Additional requirements that seem small can really add to the cost of a project, such as requiring an index, having paperclips removed, or receiving documents in their original order.

Establishing good file structures

In our shared office culture it is common to have a number of people all working within a single, shared, networked file structure. The advantage is that theoretically everyone will have access to the information they need to do their work and that all records are accessible to everyone on your staff. However, the reality is that there are often too many people imposing their own filing structures onto one departmental system. The results are often redundancy in folders, confused staff, and an inability to locate the records you need when you need them. Even if you aren’t considering going paperless (and adding a huge influx of electronic records to your network) taking the time to set up a clear and streamlined filing structure, i.e. thinking about where your electronic records will live before you add them to your network, can have many benefits.

To get started:

1. Evaluate your current folder and file names and network structure.

  • Do they reflect your current work areas?
  • Is the system clear and intuitive or do you spend time hunting for the records you need?
  • Are there outdated files that are just lingering in your network unmanaged or abandoned?
  • Does everyone have access to the files they need? Are some files “hidden” or “protected?” Who is “in charge” of these files?

2. Make changes or additions to your folder names.

  • The file names you choose should be reflective of the work you do.
  • That being said, don’t be afraid to re-name your folders or change the structure. These are flexible tools that need to work for you!

3. Try to keep your folder levels minimal and folder names short and descriptive.

  • There is often little point in creating a folder for fewer than five documents. If you do, the time you spend clicking through sub-folders may outweigh the time you save by not having to scan the contents of a folder.

4. Appoint someone(s) to oversee the basic maintenance and management of the files.

  • Records Management is everyone’s responsibility, but it does help to have a few people who are familiar with your filing structures and standards in case guidance is needed.

5. Document your standards and procedures.

  • Establishing a written file plan helps to put everyone on the same page, avoid ambiguity, and assists in training new employees.

Imagine that you’ve just completed a large outsourced scanning project; you’ve spent a great deal to have all your documents scanned, and now you’ve got disks of your all scanned files in hand. All set, right? But once you go to open up the files you realize that the disks actually contain document after document with computer generated names that mean nothing to you, let alone bear any relation to the information in these records. The amount of clicking and opening of documents one after another just to find the information you need is quickly frustrating. At this point you aren’t sure you’ve maintained access to the information in your records at all, let alone improved it.

Even if you are planning to go paperless using only resources available in house, you aren’t safe from this problem. Unless you think to name your documents at the point of scanning, or work with your vendor to create an appropriate index, you could spend hours sorting through a bunch of electronic documents with no way of telling one from the other–not efficient at all!

Adopting Naming Conventions

Effective folder and file naming is the cornerstone for building a successful paperless office. The names you assign to your electronic documents constitute the foundation of management for your office. Naming records consistently, logically and in a predictable way will distinguish similar records from one another at a glance. Beyond the ability to browse file names effectively and efficiently, naming records according to agreed conventions will also make file naming easier for colleagues because they will not have to re-think the process each time they create a new document. However, the key to successfully executing this strategy is that everyone must adhere to the file naming policy set in place.

Some useful tips for developing naming conventions:

  1. Keep file names short, but meaningful.
  2. Avoid unnecessary repetition and redundancy in file names and file paths.
  3. If using a date in the file name, always state the date ‘back to front’, and use four digit years, two digit months and two digit days: YYYYMMDD or YYYYMM or YYYY or YYYY-YYYY.
  4. When including a personal name in a file name give the family name first followed by the first name or initial.
  5. The file names of records relating to recurring events should include the date and a description of the event.
  6. The file names of correspondence should include the name of the correspondent, an indication of the subject, the date of the correspondence and whether it is incoming or outgoing correspondence.
  7. The file name of an email attachment should include the name of the correspondent, an indication of the subject, the date of the correspondence, ‘attch,’ and an indication of the number of attachments sent with the covering email.
  8. The version number of a record should be indicated in its file name by the inclusion of ‘V’ followed by the version number and, where applicable, ‘Draft.’

Please note that it is most important to establish naming conventions that are useful to your office and reflective of your work. And most importantly–it key to not just to have naming conventions, but to use them!


Now that you’ve invested time, resources, and money into going paperless, resist the urge to consider the transition completed until you have taken the time to evaluate and document your new procedures.

Has “going paperless” provided the outcome you were expecting? Do you find that you have a clear and Harvard University General Records Schedule-compliant process in place for incoming paper? Were there hiccups along the way that you hadn’t anticipated? Now is the time to tweak your process, assess the efficiency of your new folder and file structures, and perhaps even reevaluate your original goals. Take a few moments to make sure that records with special needs (e.g. sensitive information) are still being protected, and that your whole system is being backed up properly. Evaluation is an ongoing process for paperless offices, as the folder and file system you’ve created to manage your records evolves as the needs or work of the office changes.

Your documentation doesn’t have to be extensive, but you should provide enough information so that your staff, co-workers, or a new employee can all quickly learn about the filing structures in place at your office. Call it a “Master List” if you like; this document should detail not just what you file and why, but also how your colleagues should name and file new information, and what procedures are in place for making changes.

Direct staff involvement in the establishment of your new procedures has two main benefits: a better overall system and increased compliance. A well-developed folder and file system will more likely result if created by the very users who work with the documents being named and who have relevant, pertinent comments and ideas. The result will be a fine-tuned, efficient system that makes perfect sense for the way your office actually works with its documents. The chances of compliance are increased exponentially if the system is created by those who will be using it on a day-to-day basis or those who are directly affected by it rather than a system imposed from the top down. Direct involvement also engenders a feeling of teamwork, pride, and ownership, which creates the buy-in crucial for long-term application.



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