The term "paperless office" was first mentioned in a 1975 Business Week article entitled, "The Office of the Future." At a time when personal computers and the Internet were still embryonic, experts foresaw PCs on every desktop that could talk to each other by network. Over the years, the term "paperless office" became a joke as new computer owners discovered they could create more paper than ever before. Millions of people did just that: they used their new-found productivity enhancement tools to perpetuate old, inefficient habits.
Genealogists were not immune. Indeed, genealogy has always been a personal interest that attracts paper. We make notes, we create photocopies, and we purchase books. We quickly adopted the personal computer as it extends our research efforts further and faster than ever before. So how did we use our new computers? To create more paper!
Millions of genealogists started reading messages in newsgroups, searching databases online, and using search engines to find obscure references to our elusive ancestors. Once we found new information, we reverted back to old habits: we printed it. Those with organizational skills then indexed and filed the printouts.
I was always rather good at printing, but not so good at filing and indexing. Over time, I ended up with stacks and stacks of paper, typically not organized in any discernible manner. Over the years, I upgraded my printers more often than the computers. I went through a series of dot-matrix, then inkjet, then laser printers. Each new printer could produce more paper than ever before and at faster speeds as well.
Of course, I still could never find anything.
I purchased a four-drawer filing cabinet, thinking. “Now I'll be organized!” Sadly, I found that a simple purchase doesn't solve the problem. I still lacked the discipline to create indexes and to file things in well-marked folders. I still suffered from the syndrome of "I know I had that here somewhere..."
I believe the only salvation for me and for a few million other packrats is to adopt the paperless office. Yes, a paperless office is a possibility. In fact, I would suggest that it is easier to create a true paperless office than it is to create and organize a paper-based office. The tools we have available today make it easy to store and retrieve anything quickly. Thanks to software that indexes every word inside of documents, we can find and retrieve documents quickly. Even better, we all can save time and money as well as space.
Until recent years, a true paperless office was impossible for the typical home computer user. Disk drives were still expensive, and not everyone had scanners with which to scan paper documents and convert them to electronic images. The world has now changed. What was difficult has now become common.
Disk drive prices fluctuate all the time, but the trend over time has always been downwards. Three-terabyte disk drives are now available for less than $200, cheaper than the price of most laser printers. Online backup services always give you protection in case of data losses. Scanners sell for $39.95 and up. In fact, my most useful "scanner" is something I already owned, and I now use it often: the camera on my cell phone.
Over the past two or three years, I have been converting my in-home office to paperless. I have vowed to never create paper again. Most of the time, I have succeeded.
In an extreme move, I have now forced myself to be paperless. I recently moved into a Winnebago motor home. Living in small quarters dictates many things relating to available space. In short, I don't have room for a printer. That's right: I don't have a printer. I also found that I don't need one.
I do have two laptops (one for local backup), various wireless networking gadgets, a one-terabyte external disk drive for backup purposes, and an online backup service that makes duplicate copies of my backups and stores them off-site. (Never, ever depend on only one backup copy!)
With no printer available, I have made a new discovery: living without paper is easier and more convenient than using a printer!
All of my documents worth keeping are digitized and available to me at all times, wherever I am. I can access any document at most any time via the smartphone that is always with me. Bills received in yesterday's mail, insurance documents, automobile registration papers, receipts of all sorts, electronic genealogy "photocopies," and much more are available within seconds on the screen of the cell phone or on any computer. If someone else wants a copy, I can press a few icons and send the document to the other person via email.
NOTE: Obviously, this method with cell phones only works when I am within cell phone coverage areas. However, most of America is now covered by cell phone towers, and the number grows daily. In recent months, I have never been without a document at the time I needed it, even when traveling all over the U.S. and recently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. Try doing that with your four-drawer filing cabinet!
For several years, I frequently wrote about desktop scanners in this newsletter. Recently, I have stopped doing that. Unless your scanning requirements are unique, the best "scanner" you own for everyday purposes is your cell phone. Most of today's "smartphones" have 5-megapixel cameras or even higher resolutions. They may not be suitable for reproducing high-quality photographs, but they are great at creating images of bills, photocopies, pages from books, insurance documents, and much, much more. Take the cell phone out of your pocket or purse, aim the camera at the document, click, then send it to yourself by email. The very readable document will be waiting for you at your leisure as a scanned digital image. From your email inbox, you can file it as you wish.
Filing systems for all these scanned documents are better today than ever before. In fact, my two favorites are both available free of charge: Evernote and Dropbox.
Evernote is an excellent note-taking product that is good for capturing quick notes, a few pages of text, pictures, doctors' appointments, sound recordings, recipes, labels from wine bottles, automobile service dates, and more. Evernote makes it easy to capture any moment, idea, inspiration, or experience whenever you want, using whichever device or platform you find most convenient, and then it makes all of that information easy to find. You can enter the information on the keyboard or with a camera or even as sound from a cell phone's microphone.
From creating text and ink notes, to snapshots of whiteboards and wine labels, to clips of webpages, Evernote users can capture anything from their real and digital lives and find it anytime.
Evernote is available free of charge for Windows, Macintosh, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, and other platforms. Any information placed into any one device becomes available on all your other devices that have Evernote installed. You can scan your newly-received bills when the postman delivers them to your home and yet have them available when you are at the bank or grocery store an hour or two later. You can usually find any note within seconds, even if you have thousands of notes.
More information about Evernote may be found at http://www.evernote.com.
Dropbox is another file capturing and replication service, although with a very different approach. While Evernote stores notes, Dropbox is designed to share and quickly find files amongst your computers. It is an easy and effective method of making backup copies.
Dropbox works with Windows, Mac, Linux, iPad, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry. It even works when offline. You always have your files, whether or not you have a connection.
Dropbox will store up to two gigabytes of files free of charge, and even more space is available for payment of a modest fee. More information may be found at http://www.dropbox.com.
By using a combination of Dropbox and Evernote, I now have a better filing system than I ever had in my four-drawer filing cabinet. It is a pleasure to retrieve any document or note within seconds, even if I am at a genealogy conference in a strange city. Want to give a copy to someone else? Click on an icon and send it to them by email. No printing is required.
So far, I have been asked several times for photocopies of documents. For instance, when I placed my motor home in storage for a few weeks, the storage company asked for a photocopy of my insurance policy. Even though I was standing in the storage company's office at the time, I retrieved the policy on my smartphone and then asked the clerk, “What is your email address”? A few seconds later, she had a “photocopy” of my insurance policy. She could print it or not, as she wished. As for me, I didn't need a printed copy.
Life without a printer is beautiful. I am now more organized than ever, all with little effort on my part. Documents are available at any time, wherever I am. I now can spend more time writing newsletter stories and doing genealogy research than ever before. Life is good.
Most of the time, I “print” my documents as PDF files. If you have a Macintosh, you already have all the software needed to create PDF files. If you use Windows, there are a number of free PDF creation programs available. On my Windows laptop, I use PrimoPDF, a free PDF creation program available at http://www.primopdf.com/. You can find a number of other good, free PDF creation programs as well.
Most of my files are saved as unencrypted. After all, if someone wants to hack into my account or to steal my cell phone to look at great-great-grandpa's birth record or to view my chili recipe, I must admit I don't care. However, a few files are sensitive and private, including bank account information, credit card numbers, insurance documents, and similar information. I always encrypt that information first before storing it. Any would-be thief who manages to retrieve my information will only see gibberish. Even the employees of Dropbox and Evernote cannot read my encrypted files.
You can also read an excellent article about Jamie Rubin's experiences converting to a paperless lifestyle in the Evernote Blog at http://goo.gl/ekNhK. He is a professional writer who describes himself as a "Paperless Lifestyle Ambassador." Jamie had three goals:
- To eliminate clutter and save space.
- To have instant, ubiquitous access to all of his documents.
- To prove that a paperless office isn’t some pie-in-the-sky dream.
He accomplished his goals, and I’m following suit. I have become paperless and am now less cluttered and better organized. You can do the same. Life without paper is great!
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