Posted in Digitisation, Records management, Retention and disposal

Storing offsite or digitising paper records – which is more cost-effective?

As organisations increasingly move to digital recordkeeping, many are left with paper records (often stored in commercially provided offsite storage) that need to be retained or kept for a minimum period.

Some organisations may consider digitising these records in the belief that this may be more cost effective and useful than keeping them in paper form.

This argument is not always correct and is often based on a poor understanding of the total costs associated with either option.

This article outlines the indicative costs associated with both offsite storage and digitisation. It concludes that it is almost always most cost effective to keep inactive paper records in commercial offsite storage than it is to digitise them.

Note, in this post, the box size is assumed to be 310L x 390W x 250D (mm), or similar that can store 20 files with 100 pages each, or up to 2000 individual pages. All costs are shown in Australian dollars.

Offsite (commercial) storage

Commercial offsite storage helps to free up space, improve the quality of storage and reduce potential risks.

A decision to store paper records in offsite storage is often based on what appears to be a relatively low storage rate per box per month, rather than the total costs for the life of the box, from collection to destruction. 

Offsite storage cost elements

Before deciding to digitise records, it is a good idea to understand all the costs (and potential costs) associated with current or proposed offsite storage, listed below.

  • Cost of the box and barcode label. Around A$3 per box.
  • Delivery cost per box. Around A$1.50 per box (when delivered in a pack of 10).
  • Collection of boxes for storage. Depends on volume collected, but likely to be around A$3 per box for a typical small-size collection.
  • Registration of boxes for storage. Often around A$2 per box.
  • Retrieval from storage, delivery and collection and return to storage. Around $15 per box, per retrieval and return. This price will vary depending on a number of factors including how many are retrieved or delivered, and if the retrieval is priority or urgent. A single urgent box retrieval, especially out of hours, can cost as much as A$100.
  • Annual storage. This cost can range from A$2.40 and A$12 per box per year depending on volumes and contracted rates. For this post I am using an average annual cost of A$6, which would work out to around A$42 for seven years.
  • Destruction including retrieval from storage. Around A$5 per box.

These costs can be documented in a simple Excel-based cost calculator. Offsite storage providers usually have a similar model to set costs.  

Indicative costs for offsite storage

Depending on volumes and the contracted rates, the total average lifetime cost per box in storage for 7 years can be as little as A$35 (based on actual experience with ~35,000 boxes in storage), or well over $100. Additional retrievals or other activities (often described as ‘ancillary costs’) will add to this cost – see below.

Longer storage periods, retrievals (especially urgent or priority retrievals) and collection and return to storage will add to the cost.

Controlling offsite storage costs

Offsite storage costs can get out of hand when:

  • Offsite storage contracts are devolved to business units that use different companies or have different rates with the same company.
  • There is no central control point for collections or retrievals, or proactive management, including regular disposal, of boxes in storage.
  • Boxes are sent to storage and forgotten. Proactive management of boxes in offsite storage – and especially regular authorised disposal – of records in offsite storage is essential to keeping a lid on costs. 
  • Nobody knows what’s in the boxes, resulting in very costly requests to retrieve and document the boxes, or risk-based decisions to destroy them.

Digitisation

There are usually two options to digitise records – (a) in-house or (b) outsourced.

Unless the organisation has all the necessary equipment to digitise records, it is usually more cost-effective to outsource the process to a dedicated commercial provider. The provider may not be the same company where the boxes are stored.

Digitisation standards

Before any digitisation exercise is undertaken it is important to understand and establish the minimum acceptable requirements for the digitised records. This is especially the case if they are to replace paper records as the only record – for example, single or multi-page PDFs (or PDF/A), searchability (OCR), color or grey scale, dots per inch (DPI) and so on.

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) has published a list of ‘Scanning Specifications‘ (PDF) which also makes reference to AS/NZS ISO 13028:2012, ‘Information and documentation – Implementation guidelines for digitization of records’ for a guide to suitable quality assurance checks.

The NAA guidance states that, for digitised documents where colour is present, the minimun requirements are:

  • Format: PDF (PDF/A3 encouraged [but not mandated]); JPEG 20004, PNG5 or TIFF
  • Resolution: 300 dpi
  • Scanning ratio: 100%
  • Colour profile: colour
  • Bit-depth: 8 bits per channel RGB
  • Colour management: embedded ICC colour profile encouraged
  • Searchability: OCR6 encouraged (PDF or PDF/A complies)

These requirements, or a variation on them, must be included with any request for quotation, or included in the outsourced provider’s response. Once the digitisation is underway regular samples should be taken to confirm compliance and scan quality.

Digitisation cost elements

The following describes the main actions and indicative costs associated with digitising a box of records:

  • Collection of records (in boxes). Price will vary depending on volume – the lower the number, the higher the cost. Note – if the boxes are already in offsite storage, the storage provider will charge a ‘retrieval’ fee.
  • Document preparation (‘doc prep’). This involves pulling apart files, removing staples, and adding separation sheets (e.g., between files). This activity is usually charged at an hourly price (often around A$40 per hour) and usually based on around 700 pages of document preparation per hour. Note that this activity does NOT include re-creating the files post-scanning – see below.
  • Imaging scanning. Probably the cheapest element of the quote as good scanning companies use very fast scanners. Scanning is likely to be charged in a few cents per page (e.g., $0.04). Note that the scanning process also counts the pages that are scanned, which should equal the total number of images, a simple quality check.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This is done by the machine at the same time as scanning and also charged in cents per page. Note that OCR’ing the documents make the difference between a searchable PDF and a ‘dumb’ (image only) PDF. If the digitisation involves multiple separate pages in a ‘file’, the output may be a single multi-page PDF for all those pages.
  • Indexing. This is usually a manual process unless the indexing metadata can be acquired from the original documents during the digitisation process (for example, if a file number is always in the same place on the cover of a file and is readable). Indexing costs are often charged per field and is also likely to be quoted in cents. As an example, if a file or document requires five indexing fields and they are charged at $0.05 per field, the cost per file or document will be $0.25. Indexing data is often provided in the form of a csv file to accompany the PDF outputs.
  • Quality assurance checks. Often not quoted, but it is essential that all records that are scanned are subject to some form of quality assurance checks. This may be simply a visual check of the images to check for things like skewing or dropped color, but it may also include things like page/image counts.
  • Output to a storage medium – external drive, USB or cloud storage. Cost varies.
  • Re-packing of boxes (but NOT re-stapling of documents in files) – charged per hour.
  • Disposal of the original paper records (if requested). This is commonly around A$5 – A$7 per box.

If you decide to use an outsourced provider, you should ask about the storage of the scan images that are likely to be still stored in their system, and the process for ensuring that these will be deleted after the job has completed.

Indicative costs for digitised records

The following costs are from an actual quote provided by a specialised and dedicated digitisation company. The company documented all the costs associated with the work, as listed above.

  • 48 boxes – A$6,135, or $A127.82 per box. (Simple job)
  • 1,210 files in approx 80 boxes – $15,600, or $195 per box. (Complex job that required additional cataloguing of the files, on top of indexing data fields.)

As can be seen, it is likely to be more expensive to digitise a box of records than it is to store it. Generally speaking, digitisation is likely to cost around A$200 per box.

Digitisation usually costs more

From the above cost comparison it should be obvious that, even using a dedicated digitisation company, the costs to scan a box of files may be considerably higher than leaving them in storage. There would have to be a good reason to want to digitise the records.

On the other hand, if the organisation has really poor (high) contracted rates for collection, storage, retrievals and destruction, it may work out about even. However, keep in mind that most offsite storage companies have a ‘hostage fee’ for boxes in storage. This fee will be charged if the boxes are ‘permanently’ removed from storage, adding to the total cost for digitisation.

Digitising in-house

Many organisations decide to digitise paper files in-house, sometimes for ‘security’ or ‘privacy’ reasons.

This is often not cost-effective and the digitised record quality may not meet minimum standards (listed above) for recordkeeping, especially if they are ‘dumb’ scans (without OCR), a common output of most multi-function devices (printer/scanner).

Companies that specialise in digitisation of paper records often have security and/or government security clearances. This should be confirmed with the vendor.

Storing digitised records – and destroying originals

Organisations that decide to digitise paper records need to consider where the digitised records will be stored, and what should be the fate of the original paper records.

Storing digitised records

There is little point spending so much to digitise records if they are to be saved to a network file share or left on an external hard drive.

Digitised paper records should, ideally, be imported (along with the indexing metadata) into a recordkeeping system, ideally one that does not also store the original born-digital records!

Destroying the original paper after digitisation

Organisations are often unwilling to destroy the original copies of digitised paper records. Two reasons are often quoted:

  • The paper originals are still required by law (which is usually not the case).
  • ‘Just in case’ they need to refer back to the originals because there is a problem, or perceived problem, with the digitised version or with digital recordkeeping (or an absence of it).

There is often a reluctance to destroy the paper originals simply because they are the originals (often printed from a digital original), which leads to the somewhat bizarre outcome that the organisation continues to store:

  • the original digital version; AND
  • the printed version; AND
  • the digitised version of the printed original.

This is, sadly, a common scenario in many organisations.

Nevertheless, it is often safe to destroy the originals after a given period – 3 to 6 months is common. Many government records disposal authorities include a class for the purpose of destroying the original paper versions of records that have been digitised.

Summary

Digitising or scanning paper records may be cost effective if the records need to be retrieved regularly or accessed frequently, including for public access. Keeping the original paper versions of digitised records can add to the cost (and potential for confusion over the ‘original’ version).

Offsite storage of paper files may be more cost effective if the records need to be kept for less than 10 years, are rarely retrieved while in storage, and the monthly storage cost is minimal.

Offsite storage arrangements should be reviewed regularly, including to identify records for disposal. It is not uncommon for organisations not to do this, increasing costs over time. It is not in the interest of the offsite storage providers to be (overly) proactive about the destruction of boxes in storage. Some may send out a regular reminder of boxes due for disposal based on a standard 7 year period but if no reply is received, no action is taken.

Note that the process of destroying the printed version of born-digital records does not destroy the original digital records. These are likely to remain stored on drives, in email mailboxes and on backup tapes.

Author:

I am an experienced information management professional based in Melbourne, Australia. I have had close to 40 years of practical working knowledge across the full spectrum of information, records and content management issues, and direct and practical experience with contemporary and emerging business and information and enterprise content management systems. My product knowledge includes SharePoint 2010/2013/Online and OneDrive (SharePoint Administrator), Office 365 (including as a Global Administrator), Yammer, Sway, TRIM Context (R6.2 & 7.1), ECM Documentum, Alfresco Share; and other online systems. www.andrewwarland.com.au

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