Ask Unclutterer: What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles?

Reader Rose submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Before I ask my question I have to tell you I am seriously not computer savvy. I don’t understand the lingo. My question is: Since technology changes so quickly and your article ["Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter"] was written 5 years ago, would you still recommend the same scanner, software etc. to be able to accomplish my purpose? Is it possible to use the scanner on my All-in-One printer? Does the software allow you to create categories to put the articles in? Please if you have a recommendation for the simplest to use of these items that would be so gratefully appreciated!

You’re asking a number of questions and all of them are fantastic! I’ll address them in my response, but be sure to check out the comments for even more answers from our readers.

Your first question is if I still recommend the same scanner and software for tackling a paper pile (or two or ten). The short answer is yes, I strongly recommend Fujitsu ScanSnaps, their scanning and optical character recognition (OCR) software, and DevonTHINK document organizing software. The long answer to that question is more nuanced.

In the long answer, I’ll tell you that you need to find equipment and software that works best for you. If you already own an all-in-one scanner, you likely have no need to go out and buy a new scanner. However, you may want to acquire software that provides OCR processing if the software with your scanner doesn’t have this capability. Or, if you’re comfortable with storing documents online, I suggest opening an Evernote account. After you scan a document, you can upload your files to Evernote, which can read words found on documents and in images and even some handwriting (and it lets you organize your papers, too, in a way that works best for you). And, if you want a great tutorial about Evernote, check out Brett Kelly’s terrific Evernote Essentials downloadable guide. There are numerous options available to you, not just the ScanSnap-DevonTHINK one I provided in the earlier article.

Since you don’t mention what all-in-one scanner you have, I don’t know if it has document organizing software as part of its package. Most don’t, but some do have these features. You can also just nicely organize the documents on your computer in folders like you do all the other work you save on your computer. I recommend saving all files as PDFs, because if this file type ever goes out of style, you can bet there will be conversion programs that will allow you to turn PDFs into whatever becomes the new standard. To save a file as a PDF, follow the instructions in “Printing to PDF.”

Next, you asked what is the simplest way to turn your physical paper pile into digital files — and the truth of the matter is the easiest way to do it is to have someone else do it for you. Simply do a search online to find local document scanning service providers. I also recommend checking out reviews on Angie’s List to be sure the company you’re going to have scan your papers is reputable and secure. Most companies will shred your documents after they scan them. There will still be some work for you before you hand off your papers and after you receive the digital files, but having someone other than yourself do the scanning is the easiest method. (Sort your papers before you give them to the scanning company so you are only paying for important documents to be scanned and then you’ll have to organize all the digital files once they have been scanned.)

My only additional notes are to be sure to back up all of your scanned documents saved on your computer to an online site like DropBox or the previously mentioned Evernote. The last thing you want to have happen is to lose all of the documents you so diligently digitized when the hard drive on your computer crashes (which it will). And, lastly, if you are doing the scanning yourself, don’t forget to shred all of your paperwork after you digitize it.

Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck digitizing your paper collection and kudos to you for taking on this worthwhile task. Since you were able to fill out a contact form on Unclutterer to send me this question, I already know you’re more computer savvy than you give yourself credit for being.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

27 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles?”

  1. posted by Max Leibman on

    I’m struck by how much the question has changed–20 years ago, we would be looking for the best way to “paperize” our digital files (and printers were a booming business).

    Now, I rarely print anything outside of my office and do scan physical documents in (somewhat–mostly I act on them and throw them away. Or just throw them away).

  2. posted by Adam on

    You can actually make a local Evernote account (instead of synchronized), if you aren’t comfortable with storing documents online. I just wouldn’t recommend unless you’re very good about backing up.

  3. posted by Adam on

    I meant to say a local notebook within your Evernote account.

  4. posted by Sara on

    I’ve owned my printer/scanner/copier for 6 years (since I started college in August 2006) and only realized a couple of months ago that it can in fact scan to PDF. D’oh!

  5. posted by Andy Morrison on

    Great article. I’ve been in the commercial document management business for the past 13 years helping companies do just this. If I could make a few recommendations based on my experience they would be;

    1) Don’t save as PDF but rather .tif if your equipment can produce that file type. Converting from PDF can be difficult and seriously degrade the quality of the image.
    2) Do not store any sensitive documents on DropBox. They had a major security lapse last year where basically everyone’s files were open to the public for viewing and downloading. Store your images locally in multiple places and archive them off every quarter/year to DVDs that you store offsite. I’m a big fan of Apple’s Timemachine and CrashPlan for a combined disaster recovery plan.
    3) ScanSnaps are great! They even have a version now that works with both Mac and PC. It used to be one or the other. The $300 you invest in that scanner will be paid back in a matter or months not having to fix jams and double feeds from low cost multifunction devices.
    4) Use a simple folder structure rather than a complex document management software package. DevonThink and Evernote are great but you probably won’t use OCR search as much as you think and the results are mixed.
    5) Don’t forget about your old slides, photos, and vital records.

    Good Luck!

    Andy

  6. posted by Dean T Rose on

    What’s the equivalent to the DevonTHINK for PC? I was all excited about DevonTHINK and then saw it was only a MAC product.

  7. posted by Jay on

    For paper piles you already have, scanning is the best option.

    Going forward, minimize the paper you receive. Access all your bills, health insurance paperwork, bank and financial statements, etc. electronically. Save the documents you want to keep as pdf files. Back them up.

    Also, think long and hard about what documents you want to keep electronic copies of. Perhaps you do not need to keep electronic copies of cable bills, phone bills, etc.

  8. posted by George Brett on

    I found Evernote was difficult to extract content from without copy and past method. Has it changed yet? It has been a while since I have been there.

  9. posted by Carol Swedlund on

    I have a Canon Pixma all-in-one, closer to the bottom of the price range than the top, I just don’t remember exactly which one. Scanning is AWESOME! It used to be a chore with my old SLOW laptop, but with my new one it goes very quickly. I can’t afford to have anyone scan for me, so since I’ve just started trying to get old things scanned, I scan for about half an hour most weeknights, then more on the weekends. I was thinking about using Dropbox but since I will be scanning old medical records, maybe I won’t include them, given the above information about security problems at Dropbox. I do back up to an external hard drive.

  10. posted by Alex on

    There are several tools I use to digitize millions of pages. The cheapest and easy method is to use a $60 copy stand (or even cheaper, build your own) which uses the tripod mount of a DSLR Camera, and process it through the open source Scan Tailor. This is a terrific way to quickly process books.

    Camscanner is a great tool for scanning in receipts with your smartphone camera, cleaning it up, changing it to PDFs, then sending it to Mail, Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, what have you. I use it to scan in photos of microfiche and microfilm in a pinch.

    I use a regular scanner with Nuance Omnipage often enough, which has the best OCR software I found. There are plenty of free solutions out there for OCR as well.

  11. posted by Ryan on

    I just bought my scansnap based upon Unclutter’s 5 year old recommendation and I love it! I treat it like I would a first born child. :)

  12. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dean — If you’re an MS user and you want something that integrates with your other MS products, OneNote is an easy match. Should have included that in my original post. A great question!

  13. Profile photo of

    posted by chacha1 on

    One part of this question I’m not clear on, and that is, has the LW already decluttered her paper piles? Because there is no “good solution” for scanning and organizing digital copies of stuff you don’t need to keep anyway. Scanning and organizing take a lot more time than just pitching things into the trash. :-)

    So I’d start with the articles here on what you NEED to keep, organize it, and THEN refer back to the hardware & software recommendations.

    Personally, I do not bother scanning anything I know I am going to be able to shred once its audit window passes. I keep a box for each tax year and once the box is more than 8 years old, everything in it – *except* the original tax returns and their essential backup – goes straight into the super-shredder.

    If it’s personal papers and not financial records of which we speak, then IMO the best way to organize them is a simple “folder tree.” Start with a folder by year, and within that folder create sub-folders for family, friends, photos, vacations, home improvements, or whatever other categories you want to be able to browse through.

    Do one year’s worth, then cogitate on the folders to see if they work for you. Edit as needed, and only then proceed to do additional years with the same structure (trust me, it will make searching MUCH easier).

    Finally, I recommend never, ever naming a folder “miscellaneous.”

  14. posted by Tracy on

    I just purchased an ibook for ipad on this subject called Paperless by David Sparks it is really good you may want to check it out.

  15. posted by Tim Stringer on

    For those of you on Mac/iOS…another recommend for David Sparks’ new “Paperless” e-book. It’s a rich source of information complemented by screencasts that are integrated right into the iPad book. If you don’t own an iPad the book is also available in PDF format through his website.

    I’m also a HUGE fan of the ScanSnap series (I own the S1300 model). It’s one of the best hardware investments I’ve ever made and has made the transition to paperless much easier.

  16. posted by ninakk on

    I am trying to get away from folders except for a few main categories in Finder. Leap for mac is awesome, because my files are usually many more than just one context. It is so quick to find a file once it had been tagged properly; the only time-consuming step is indeed the tagging. Leap doesn’t create copies of the originals either, contrary to some other programmes.

    I was interested in scansnap until I realised it would encourage me to scan mindlessly. Scanning on my Canon Pixma MP550 is slower but at least I don’t convert anything useless this way.

    I would start by doing what chacha suggested; look through what actually has to be scanned. Also see whether there are papers, which could be received as pdf’s rather than dead tree format (bank ccount statements etc.).

  17. posted by Catherine on

    NeatScan with Neatworks (http://www.neat.com/) is fantastic for archiving as well as for scanning receipts and business cards. Fast scans with a decent multi-page feeder. My family has used Neat scanners for business and personal for almost two years. Couldn’t function as well without it and wouldn’t want to try! Plus it really does help to have all of our papers filed digitally – much easier to find what you are looking for.

  18. posted by Karen on

    I’ve been using DevonThink and a ScanSnap for almost five years now. I am very satisfied with this workflow. OCR is absolutely wonderful. It makes it very easy to find the documents I need with a simple search. The AI that DevonThink uses for it’s filing system also makes it quick and easy to group similar documents together. If you change your mind and want to stop using the program, you can easily export your documents and filing system intact. You are not locked in.

  19. posted by Glenn on

    I use Evernote AND a directory structure on my PC. I wish I could afford a scan snap! Back in the 90s I supported the backend IT for a commercial document imaging system. Although I wasn’t on the application side of things I learned a lot which I now use for personal papers.

    My concern is this: a lot of you are talking about trashing or shredding documents once scanned. The commercial services I’ve trialled do the same for me. But in my jurisdiction the digital files are only as valid as the originals. That is to say in a legal situation you may be required to produce the original. My client in the 90s, a life insurance company, freed up fully three floors of a large 13 storey office block by digitising. But those three floors of files went offsite to a (cheaper) document warehouse to meet legislative requirements.

    In other words, check if you need to retain originals in your jurisdiction before trashing them.

  20. posted by Andy Chow on

    Where I work we receive 500+ legal letters and documents per day. We’ve gone completely paperless internally. We scan the documents, they get date stamps on them to be legal, then can be shredded (in my jurisdiction). It’s the same as an email, but we had to have a system where we could have a date stamp could not be modified.

    It’s also saved a lot of time. Now, when we need a file, instead of asking someone to go to the archives and fetch it, we search for it (with a proprietary internal software), and get all relevant documents instantly. Also, several people can see the documents at the same time. Having all data on the network is amazing.

    In my personal life, I’ve been able to get to a paperless state where I receive very few letters, less than 5 a month (not counting things that I can confidently toss in a shredder without opening). If I got more, I’d consider a service like “earth class mail”. I’m in Canada, so I use the government’s Epost to manage almost all my bills, plus get my pay stubs and tax documents from my employer. Plus it’s free. Sweet!

  21. posted by Sarah B R on

    @Andy Chow
    If it’s a service provided by the government, it’s not free. It’s funded by taxpayers.

  22. posted by DJH on

    I use a cheap(less than $100.00) Brothers all-in-one, it comes with PaperPort software and OCR software. I scan scan PDF, TIFF & JPEG, I prefer PDF set at 600dpi. You can set up folders however you like with sub-folders…..I keep a back up on an external hard drive and a 2nd backup on a 32GB Flash drive I drop into the safe…….I started with new files (papers) coming in and as time allowed I went though old files and scanned or shredded. I don’t even keep tax documents any longer, I save my taxes in PDF and scan supporting documents into the same filling year file and shed them. I have been 99% paper free for 5 years now!

  23. posted by Lois on

    Is it difficult to learn how to use the ScanSnap 1500? Some reviewers mentioned the lack of a helpful manual.

  24. posted by shubham on

    Evernote and Dropbox are good For this…

  25. posted by LHernandez on

    @Lois, the scan snaps are not that difficult, but it does take time to learn which workflow is best for your situation. The scansnap managersoftware offers up several choices right off the bat and let’s you customize for even more options, but the choices can seem overwhelming. YouTube has some good videos showing scansnap how-tos.

    I found for me that picking the workflow SCAN TO FILE and letting it Auto-name the file let me get the paper scanned quickly. Then on a regular basis, I would rename the files to something that made sense. When I first got the scanner, I insisted on naming the files when I scanned, and it made things much slower. Should I name it this way, should it go in that folder, should I add tags or comments? I started avoiding the scanner and regretting the purchase. But Uncluttered, Documentsnap, Macsparky, takeControl, Lifehacker and a bunch of talented people have gone paperless with these scanners and they have written many nice things about using the scansnap to your best advantage, and when I saw this great video about using the Mac’s cover flow feature when renaming files, it really made a huge difference. Operating the scanner is easy, planning how to go paperless is hard.

    I love my scansnap now, I think you will too.

  26. posted by Jennifer on

    I just bought a ScanSnap S1100. Because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I now realize I cannot use it without a laptop – in other words, I can’t just carry it and my new iPad. Does anyone 1) know if there is a way to make it iPad-compatible or 2) know of a portable scanner that is iPad-compatible or 3) have a recommendation for a portable scanner that uses a memory card (and runs on batteries) that I can dump when I get home to my laptop? Thank you!

  27. posted by Anonymous on

    First shred. The more you save the harder it is to retrieve. If you “might need it in the future” throw it out. Only save what you “will need”. Trust your judgment.

    You may have so little left that paper-files are still sufficient.

    Quality scanners are still too expensive and the cheap ones are too slow. If I find myself scanning something monthly I try to get it delivered electronically.

    Electronic backup of large paper documents get taken to Kinkos.

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