RIM: Part five, scanning paper records

Now that we’ve eliminated all of the records we no longer need, it’s time to organize the records we are keeping. Many people have a desire to go paperless and convert their paper records to electronic records. This is commonly called “imaging.” Here are some things to consider.

Is it worth imaging?

If you’re going to be shredding the paper within the next year, it may not be worth your time to scan it. The tax returns you are required to keep (but never actually look at again) may be able to sit quietly in a box until they are ready to be shredded. Focus on getting year’s documents imaged first, then work backwards in time if required.

Many user manuals for appliances and electronics are probably already in digital format. Don’t waste your time scanning them. Search for them online and download them. You can scan the receipt of purchase and keep that with the digital copy of your user manual.

Is imaging permissible?

Some governments and agencies will not accept imaged paper documents as “official records.” Most vital records and some other important documents (e.g., birth certificates, marriage licences, will, and investment certificates) are issued on paper and must remain on paper. Confirm with the agency or your legal/financial advisors if imaged documents meet the requirements of official records. The Government of Canada and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service have published guidelines on document imaging.

NOTE: You are welcome to use these imaging guidelines to store electronic copies of vital records and important documents but please do not destroy the originals!

File format

Files scanned for document preservation are typically stored as Tagged Image File Format (.tif) or Portable Document File (.pdf), both of which are lossless. Lossless means that every single bit of data that was originally in the file remains after the file is compressed and uncompressed. This is generally the technique of choice for text or spreadsheet files, where losing words or financial data could pose a problem. Lossy file formats (e.g., jpg) throw away the smallest pixels every time the file is re-saved. If you re-save too many times, the image would eventually disappear.

Scanning resolution

It is important to scan your documents at the proper resolution so that they are legible when viewed on the screen and when printed. The acronyms PPI and DPI are often used interchangeably however they are different. PPI means pixels per inch and measures resolution on the screen whereas DPI means dots per inch and measures resolution on print. The higher the DPI when an image is scanned, the higher quality it will be both on screen and in print.

Generally, office documents are usually scanned at 200-300 DPI. A higher resolution may be required if there is fine, small text or unclear penmanship (e.g., faint handwritten signature). Scanning in black & white produces smaller files and may be adequate for most plain text documents or line diagrams. Colour or greyscale scanning captures more detail but creates larger files.

You should scan a few sample documents and then print them out (what you see on the screen is not necessarily what you get when you print) to ensure that the re-produced image is identical to the original. Remember, your electronic records should be able to support you in the event of an audit or during any legal proceedings. This may mean scanning blank pages. For example, if your document has four pages, but there is only important data on three of those four pages, you must scan all four pages or your imaged document will be incomplete.

Your sample documents will also give you an idea of the size of files being produced and how much storage space you’ll need on your computer and in your backup locations.

Searchable scanned documents

If you need to be able to search for text within your imaged documents, you’ll need to perform OCR (optical character recognition) during the scanning process. OCR software is often included with scanner software and converts tiff/pdf files to machine-readable text. The success of the OCR process is dependent upon the quality of the scanned image. It works best with type-written text documents. It probably won’t work well with handwritten documents. Performing OCR during the scanning process may slow down the scanning speed but being able to search with your documents may be more important.

Naming your files

Decide on a naming convention — a system used to name your scanned files. As some computer systems have problems with the use of spaces in file names, use an underscore or dash instead (file_name.pdf). It is helpful to use dates in the YYYY-MM-DD format as files will be listed chronologically in the folder. An example would be 2017-04_electric_bill.pdf. You only need to use the DAY if you have more than one document per month (e.g., 1944-12-04_Grandpa_war_letter.pdf and 1944-12-21_Grandpa_war_letter.pdf). Whatever you decide, keep your system consistent.

Backing up your documents

Paperless expert Brooks Duncan, recommends the 3,2,1 rule. You’ll need to have at least three copies of your data, your original PDFs (most likely stored on your home computer) and two backups. You’ll need to keep these backups on two different media (for example, CDs and an external hard drive) and store one backup off-site in a safe location such as a safety deposit box. Take the time to plan your digital storage options before you start imaging.


There are many different types of scanners that can do the job. Which type and brand you buy should be based on the type and amount of scanning you need to do, whether or not you need searchable documents and of course, your budget. Here are the basic types of scanners, the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and an example of each type.

Mobile scanner

  • Advantages: These are ideal for people on the go needing to scan receipts, papers, and business cards. Most models will create searchable PDFs. Some models have duplex scanning that allow both sides of a page to be scanned at once. They are USB powered so there is no need to use an electrical outlet.
  • Disadvantage: They scan rather slowly compared to desktop scanners and only scan one page at a time. They may not be suitable for delicate papers and won’t scan things like books. Some models won’t scan photos.
  • Example: Epson WorkForce DS-30 Portable Document & Image Scanner

Document scanner

  • Advantage: These allow for fast, double sided scanning and you can feed many documents different sizes at once. They can create searchable pdfs. They are rather small and can be easily moved and do not take up much desk space.
  • Disadvantage: They may not be suitable for delicate papers and won’t scan things like books.
  • Example: Fujitsu iX500 ScanSnap Document Scanner

Flatbed scanner with document feeder

  • Advantage: The document feeder allows lots of documents of different sizes to be scanned quickly. Some models may do double-sided scanning. They can create searchable pdfs. Having a flatbed allows for scanning of books, oversized and delicate papers.
  • Disadvantage: Because they are rather large, they are not easy to move around and take up quite a bit of desk space. The scanning speeds are usually slower than plain document scanners.
  • Example: HP OfficeJet Pro 8720 Wireless All-in-One Scanner Printer

In our household, we have two scanners. For business trips and when we move house (we’re a military family so we move frequently), the mobile scanner has been extremely useful. It takes up very little space in our baggage and allows us to scan receipts and documents in our hotel room. It’s great to have an instant electronic copy in case the original receipt is lost or damaged. We also have a flatbed scanner with document feeder we use at home. Being able to scan delicate photos and documents as well as the odd page of a book on the flatbed has been very helpful and using the document feeder allows piles of paper to be scanned quickly.

Eliminating the paper records

Once you are sure you have adequately imaged all your documents, return to your original retention schedule and note which paper records you have imaged and on which date. Indicate that the imaged documents are now your only record. Prepare to destroy the paper records.

Our next RIM post will be on how and where to store all of your papers and your digital documents. In the meantime, happy imaging!


Other posts in this series:

3 Comments for “RIM: Part five, scanning paper records”

  1. posted by Mixinitaly on

    This article is really informative, on many levels. Aside of the scanning process, you concisely explained many other things that are useful and important. Thanks so much!

  2. posted by Dallee on

    Got the new Fujitsu ScanSanp ix500 — you can’t do better than that! Scans documents into YOUR file structure — unlike a scanner which uses its own proprietary file system. It has a new program for scanning receipts — so terrific and doesn’t fail on you as do some of the more dedicated programs of that type. Of course, also scans business cards.

    If you have an older model ScanSnap, there is a rebate for upgrades to the ix500 available through September 15th so do the research to find if you are eligible. I’m so glad I shifted!

  3. posted by MJ Ray on

    PDF is not necessarily lossless. Some software offers the option of smaller files by using JPEG for images. It’s important to switch off any such option, or use a lossless format like PNG or TIFF.

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