Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Scanning, Paper-Reducing Odyssey

Tip of the Week, June 27, 2010

A few weeks back, while reacquainting myself with some of the stuff I'd stored in various tucked-away spots throughout my house, I came across several 3-ring binders full of handouts and tasting notes from wine education classes I'd taken a few years back. (Learning more about wine? That's my kind of continuing education!)

I didn't want to simply dump this stuff in the recycling, as it's info I can anticipate referring back to, but I also didn't want to hold onto it all in paper form, especially because it took up so much room. So I decided to embark on an experiment: I'd scan the info, save it on my computer, and pitch the hard copies.

Here's how I went about that, what I discovered along the way, and how you can undertake a similar project to reduce the paper in your life.

How I Did It
I started by gathering together all of the papers I wanted to scan so I had a clear sense of the volume I was dealing with (all told, more than a ream). Because of the hefty amount, I opted to use my NeatReceipts scanner for the job, rather than the flatbed scanner that's part of my all-in-one printer, because it's much faster and does almost as good a job.

Before I started, I set up files on my computer for each of the wine classes I'd taken so that it would be easy to save and organize each set of handouts I'd be scanning. For the sake of consistency, I also decided how I'd name each scanned file: with the title of the class, followed by the date or the region we'd studied during each session.

While I was at it, and because I'm a bit of a geek about such things, I also created a library in Bento, my database program, into which I could transcribe my written tasting notes. Getting this info from paper into digital form is an ongoing project, as it requires a fair amount of typing, but setting up the library meant I had a designated place for it to go when I got around to entering it.

Finally, with everything ready to go, I sat down, put on some good music, and scanned away.

What I Discovered
Scanning page after page of these papers gave me time to review them, and to briefly revisit all those classes I had taken. One thing I realized in the process is that having this info digitized and stored on my computer actually makes it much more accessible to me. It takes me just a few seconds to get to the computer folder where I've stored these files and open the one I want--no digging into storage, having to pull out a heavy binder, and flipping through multiple pages required.

In addition, my NeatReceipts scanner does what's called OCR (or Optical Character Recognition) as it scans, so the PDFs that result are searchable: if I want to find the name of a particular winery in a class handout, I can open that document in Preview (the program I use to read PDFs) and search for the winery name, and Preview will highlight it in the document. Pretty cool!

My scanning odyssey not only put me back in touch with information I'd had literally stored away for years, but also made me feel many pounds lighter. Digitizing all of those pages and then recycling the originals was oddly liberating--so much so that I've started looking around for other papers in my files I can scan and store electronically.

Your Own Scanning Project
Ready to undertake your own paper scanning project? Step 1 is to get your hands on a reliable, easy-to-use scanner. Choose one that creates PDFs and, ideally, that offers OCR. I like my NeatReceipts model, but if you anticipate doing a lot of scanning on a regular basis, you might opt for a NeatDesk (a fuller-featured scanner made by the same company) or Fujitsu's ScanSnap, another popular compact scanner. If you're tackling a small-scale scanning project and you have a multi-function printer, its built-in scanner may do the trick.

Next up, choose a manageable selection of papers to scan. Starting relatively small will allow you to get used to how your scanner works and will give you a sense of how quickly you'll be able to scan and store documents. Some good candidates for scanning: articles and reference material, bills and financial statements from past years (check with your CPA to make sure you can safely shred the originals once they're digitized), and notes, projects, and writing assignments from classes you've taken.

(Note: once you start storing documents electronically, it's more important than ever to regularly back up your computer's hard drive, especially if you've digitized things like financial records. I recommend taking the time to get a backup system in place before you embark on your scanning journey.)

When you're all set up, scan away--and then recycle or shred the papers you've digitized. I think you'll discover not only that your documents are more easily accessible when stored and organized on your computer, but also that getting rid of paper without having to get rid of the information it contains is delightfully freeing.

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