Winning the War Against Paper and Microfilm: New Storage Solutions

Fearing that a legion of tall, hefty filing cabinets overflowing with paper might collapse the floor of the new benefits office, Michael Paden called a structural engineer for advice. "We didn't want to overload the floors," says Paden, the associate vice president for Benefits at the University of Missouri System.

The engineer appeared stunned by the number of filing cabinets Paden showed him but still evaluated the structural components of the office floor as sound. The engineer did, however, recommend placing the filing cabinets carefully, around the perimeter of the space and along load-bearing walls.

The space and structural strength required to store blizzards of paper accumulated over decades is only one part of a problem facing college and university administrators today. As paper files proliferate, access to those files grows more difficult. It can take hours and even days to locate files. If a second person needs a file in current use, he or she must wait until the paper snowflakes find their way back home.

As a result, administrators have begun to seek out technologies capable of solving their paper problems. The strategy is two-fold. First, they want to turn paper files into electronic files that can be stored in disk drives requiring much less space than filing cabinets. Second, they hope to find technologies that will enable them to enter information directly into electronic files, eliminating the production of paper in the first place. Electronic files will not only take up less space, they will also allow any number of people to access those files simultaneously - through Internet or Intranet connections.

Paden has begun this effort at the University of Missouri. "I've been asking about this for a long time," he says. "And our office has been chosen to start the process."

Microfilm Storms

Paper is but one enemy in the storage and retrieval wars. Microfilm is another. Until recently, for example, the University of Cincinnati stored human resource files on 12,000 active employees and tens of thousands of past employees on microfilm. Why? Ohio state law requires the university to retain personnel files for as long as 75 years after employees leave. In addition, personnel files always have plenty of good uses.

The university's Records office deals with about 250 requests for employment information every month. The Records office satisfies those requests by searching more than 2.5 million documents stored in more than 700 microfilm cartridges, each with approximately 3,700 image frames. Through the years, budget cuts, staff reductions and a growing workload led Christina Diersing, the director of Human Resources Systems and Information Technology, to search for a more efficient information processing system.

Several years ago, Diersing commissioned a study to explore an electronic storage strategy that would digitize paper and microfilm images, archive the images in original formats and make them available on demand via internal networks and the Internet. The study recommended Alchemy Gold, a Windows-based document management system made by Information Management Research of Englewood, Colo.

According to Diersing, converting to electronic storage required four steps. First, the 2.5 million documents stored on microfilm were digitized and indexed. Paper documents stored off-site were also digitized. A connection to the payroll system was created to link new data to the appropriate personnel files. Finally, a system was implemented to move daily record updates into the new electronic database.

Diersing's team selected a Wicks and Wilson scan station to digitize the microfilmed images and a Kodak color scanner to handle new paper documents as they are created. Alchemy's DataGrabber and Scan2 software applications now manage access and retrieval of the scanned microfilm and paper databases, which reside on an IBM server with 180 gigabytes of RAID 5 storage.

The new system has eliminated backlogs and created enormous productivity gains. For example, 3,700 pages can now be scanned, indexed and made available to users in 90 minutes, compared to seven days with the old microfilm system.

Mining and Managing Electronic Data

Electronic files not only reduce storage space, they permit faster, easier file retrieval. Instead of wandering among rows of filing cabinets looking for the“Rs” and then the "Ras" and so on, fingers and keyboards locate files in an electronic system. Once files have been digitized, specialized software programs automatically index the files by selecting and logging key words.

CaminoSoft Corporation of Westlake Village, Calif., for example, makes SearchExpress, software used to catalog files at the University of New Mexico. "After a file is digitized and named, SearchExpress finds the file and indexes it automatically," says Neil Murvin, chief technology officer for CaminoSoft. Indexing involves scanning the file, ignoring common words, remembering key words and attaching a database of key words to the file. Later, when someone types a key word - a name, for example -- into a search engine, SearchExpress retrieves the file.

No one has to wade through a morass of filing cabinets to get it. And no one has to worry about the floors collapsing under the weight of hundreds of filing cabinets.