Want a Paperless Home or Office? Try This Technique to Come Closer to the Reality

For more than 20 years, leading technology magazines have talked about the time when our offices and even our homes would no longer be congested with paper or big filing cabinets. Yet if anything, we use more paper today than ever before. Instead of storing information on computers, we often insist on hard copy versions, sometimes numbering as many as five duplicates.

But you, through the use of simple technology you may already have on hand, can come a lot closer to the reality of a relatively paper-free work or living space. Even if you don’t mind the paper, the security of being able to lay your hand on a particular document at any time can mean peace of mind. Plus you can always find something to do with the room you free up when you move those ugly filing cabinets to the garage or basement.

I went on this mission nearly a decade ago. I am a pack rat, a poorly organized one at that, and the result just is not pretty. I hold onto paper until it has lost its crispness, and sometimes even the ability to read its printing. But the more paper I keep, the harder it is to find something specific, regardless of how many storage cabinets I once filled and the time I spend sorting and filing. I definitely needed a better way to store important paperwork.

About this time, I acquired a good flatbed scanner. This is an essential component in the process because, unlike other types of scanners, a flatbed makes it easiest to copy into digital form all the various types of documents, including applications, tax returns, and cards of all sizes, you are likely to want.

If you have another kind of scanner, such as a hand-held or sheet-fed, consider buying a flatbed as well. There are some decent models from Agfa and other manufacturers that run as low as $25-40. You will be glad you did.

Wanting to make the best use of the scanner, I decided to copy some of my most important documents and other printed material into digital form, so I could store them in a computer. After all, a standard filing cabinet usually cannot begin to hold even the documents and images you can store on a single recordable CD, which isn’t even the most capacious storage medium. A spare hard disk or recordable DVD stores far more.

However you plan it, you do not want to keep your digital documents on your primary hard disk, at least not without making a copy. In fact, you should make at least three copies and store these recorded discs in various places for your best protection. One of these locations should be a fireproof safe or lockbox.

Most scanners come with software that lets you easily scan documents. Yet, as I experimented, I found that Microsoft Word, the world’s most widely used world processor, worked best for me. Versions from 2000 on support both scanners and digital cameras. I use the Insert>Picture>Scanner or Camera option to insert a scanned document right into a Word file. This technique usually opens the scanner software automatically as you proceed.

When I started, I found myself going quickly through tax returns, applications for everything from a dog license and rabies vaccination certificate to motor vehicle registrations and beyond, to important-to-keep sales receipts and invoices, all the way to credit cards, driver licenses, product warranty and registration cards, and a hundred different forms. In very little space consumed on my hard disk – not quite enough to yet justify recording it all onto CD – I had about three years worth of paperwork I should not lose converted into digital format. At any time, I could click on the files to open and view them.

What better way to test my new system that the day I got a threatening sounding letter from the tax folks stating that they had just noticed they had no record of my federal return for a particular year, which just happened to be one of the years I’d scanned. But this, I did not yet remember. When I went to my archive filing cabinet, I got a messy surprise; located in a back closet, the cabinet had become saturated by dirty water that had flooded a corner of the closet from unexpectedly voluminous snow melt that found its way inside. The contents of two of the four file drawers was one huge paper sculpture, as every sheet was stuck and since dried to one another. Ink and water had saturated everything; almost nothing was readable.

I panicked, wondering how I would ever reconstruct a three-year-old tax return, especially considering all my receipts, worksheets, and other data had been in an envelope with that return. Then I remembered the scanning I had done.

Just a few steps and a few minutes later, I had pulled up the recorded CD where I had copied that first batch of documents, reviewed it, and printed a copy to send off to the Internal Revenue Service. Crisis averted; panic postponed for another day.

Yet the experience stuck with me. Not only had the job been easy, but the work had already saved me from a potential hassle. Since that day, I routinely make scanned copies of just about everything I may later need. While I continue to keep paper copies of most material, probably past the point where I can chute them, it gives me incredible security to know that I can locate any critical correspondence, contract, invoice, application, or financial form in no time. Before my bank switched over to small photocopies of my cancelled checks, I scanned all my bank statements as well. Now, whenever I?m in doubt whether to keep something – true especially when the sheet or card is non-standard size and may be easily lost – I simply scan it. The output has come in handy any number of additional times since the great flooded tax return debacle.

Interested? Let’s go through the details; they are simple and you may already have what is required.

You likely already have a CD recording drive. If you anticipate burning huge numbers of CDs, you might want to upgrade to a DVD recording drive where you can store up to 4.7 GB of data, compared with about 650 MB on CDs.

Because you’re making extra copies, and may do this regularly, consider buying your recordable media in bulk. Spindles of 100-count recordable CDs and DVDs usually save you over 3- or 10-count packages.

If you’re a PC user, you probably want Windows XP for this work because it’s Scanner or Camera Wizard and the integrated ability to copy or move files to a recording CD is much simpler than earlier versions. I recommend, as noted before, Microsoft Word. But you can stick to just the software that comes with your scanner or another application that supports the use of a scanner.

Next, assemble all the items you want to scan. You may want to sort these into categories first, and then create a folder for each category. For example, create a folder you name Tax Returns and then scan all tax paperwork into it or create subfolders in Tax Returns in which you can store federal, state, and local returns separately.

Then follow the instructions available with your scanner or other application to begin scanning. Once you finish scanning one document, save it with an identifiable file name and scan the next document.

If you use Word, you may do something like this:

1. From a new document, click Insert>>Picture>>Scanner or Camera.
2. Insert the document into the scanner as instructions direct.
3. Follow on-screen prompts to start the scan.
4. If there are additional pages to scan here, click your cursor just beyond the scanned image displayed in Word, and then click Insert>>Picture>>Scanner or Camera again and scan the next page.
5. When all done, click File>>Save and type a name for the document.

Once you have scanned all documents you want, you want to copy these onto CD or DVD. You want to make at least three copies and store each copy in a different location.

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