Simplifying Document Imaging For County Archives

Simplifying Document Imaging For County Archives

A new scanning solution at Chester County Archives cut the time it takes to convert a box of documents from a day to 90 minutes.

Managing and retaining public records may sound like a relatively simple process, but for government archiving agencies it can be quite a daunting task. Local and state government regulations vary but non-permanent public records typically must be kept available for anywhere from three to 50 years. In the past, Chester County Archives and Records Services (CCARS) of Pennsylvania would store many of these records on microfilm for both retention and employee access purposes.  Although microfilm was the best option CCARS had available at the time, it also proved to be arduous and expensive to produce.

Recently, CCARS instituted a system designed to manage these records electronically using document scanning technology. Unfortunately, the initial scanning system that was used proved to be very labor-intensive and inefficient. On average, the department was effectively scanning a year’s worth of court records each year.  Faced with this and a variety of other challenges, CCARS began a search for a better way to address their document retention needs.

History of Chester County Archives and Records Services

Created in 1982, CCARS was established to preserve and make available the historic records of Chester County. The archive currently holds over 2,940 volumes and 1,823 cubic feet of original public records of enduring historic and cultural value. Serving over 3,000 researchers a year, the archive is a primary destination for genealogists, property researchers, local historians, and academics researching all facets of Chester County history. In 1985, the archive expanded to include micrographics and records management sections. To help manage these valuable public records, the county departments follow the strict guidelines established by the state of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Courts.

A Costly and Time-Consuming Process

CCARS stores and provides access to local government records that date back to the 17th century. Records stored at CCARS include documents from health and human services, civil and criminal court files, tax information, and land deeds. In the past, each department would keep hard-copies of records in their offices until they were no longer active. At that point each department would send the records to CCARS where they would be put into storage and in many cases transferred to microfilm. What seemed like a simple process was actually quite complicated.

“In the past we had an employee whose sole job was to take documents and convert them to microfilm, but that was a very time-consuming process,” said Jacob Goodridge, Records Manager for the Chester County Government. “We examined our document conversion processes and realized there were three areas of concern. First, it was difficult to edit or update microfilm. Second, a natural disaster like a flood could destroy all of our paper records so we needed to get documents converted to an alternative format as quickly as possible. Third, turning paper documents into microfilm was a lengthy and costly process. What we needed was a new way to manage our non-permanent records that reduced our costs and improved our workflow processes.”

Less of a Vendor, More of a Partner

In order to come up with a better solution, Goodridge and his team explored a variety of options. Initial research told him that switching from microfilming to document scanning would be the ideal solution since scanning takes less time and it is much more cost-effective. Unfortunately, some of the initial feedback proved less than positive.

“Some of the people I spoke with told me that the vendor they selected had made promises that they didn’t keep,” said Goodridge. “The technical support wasn’t very helpful, there were surprise charges, and the technology wasn’t as good as advertised. What we wanted was someone who would work side-by-side with us to tackle our issues and provide us with what was promised.”

CCARS moved forward with scanning technology they were told would be able to address all of their needs. However, after just a few months of collecting production data, Goodridge realized this was not the case.

“It didn’t take us long to figure out that the new scanning hardware couldn’t support the volume of documents we were processing,” said Goodridge. “One box worth of documents would take an entire day to scan and store. To put that in perspective, one of our departments has a 15 year backlog of documents which means it would have taken us 15 years to put all of their information into a digital format. We also had issues preparing the documents for scanning, such as removing staples or adjusting for bindings, which made the entire process way too costly and time-consuming. We were very frustrated but knew that there were other technologies available that could address our needs.”

With a clearer understanding of the requirements needed to tackle their issues, CCARS examined a number of options and realized that one vendor, OPEX Corporation, could address CCARS’s unique document conversion needs. Much to his delight, Goodridge saw immediate improvement in how his organization functioned by working with OPEX.

• Increased speed: It used to take an entire day to convert a box of documents to a digital format. By switching to the OPEX document scanners, that time was reduced to 90 minutes.

• Improved workflow: Requests for original hard-copy documents can take up to 24 hours to process. However, once a record has been scanned, any employee of Chester County with proper login credentials can now access records instantly.

• Enhanced security: CCARS now can rest easy knowing that all of the digitized and indexed documents are stored in a data center that is located at another site. In addition, if a paper-based document is damaged, it is very costly to repair. By having documents stored electronically, CCARS has direct access to a backup copy without having to incur the high cost of document restoration.  

Beyond all of the improvements gained by using the OPEX DS2200, Goodridge noted one additional benefit. “OPEX has delivered on every promise they made before we signed the deal. Not only have we secured tangible benefits such as reduced costs and improved workflow, but OPEX has gone out of their way to help us maximize our investment in their technology. The level of support we have received from OPEX is top-notch and I view them as more of a partner than as a vendor.”

Looking Ahead

Beyond saving time and money, Goodridge has noticed a change in how the CCARS is viewed by other government agencies within Chester County. “Other departments that need documents recorded, managed and stored view CCARS as a high-quality service provider. We can address their document retention needs in a timely and efficient manner which also grants access to important documents for both employees and citizens. So in addition to running a well-managed department, we are helping to serve the public.”