The words "paperless office" have been amusing for years, but today we are beginning to see that reality. In fact, we can now come close to having both a paperless office and a paperless home.
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 computer networks. 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 are 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! It soon clutters up our lives.
I feel like I am at an A.A. meeting: "Hello, my name is Richard and I am a... packrat." Maybe we should start an organization called P.A. for "Packrats Anonymous" or R.P.A. for "Recovering Paper Addicts." I will suggest that paper dependency is an easier addiction to deal with than alcohol addiction.
Going paperless at home and at work is challenging at first, but the results are worth it. Once you convert to a paperless life, it is rather easy to maintain a home without paper. Of course, filing paper documents in a manner that allows quick and easy retrieval is also a challenge. Paper is easily destroyed by fire, water, mold, insects, and other problems. However, I suspect the most common loss of paper documents is caused by "I forget where I put that."
Digital documents, on the other hand, can be backed up and stored off-site or in the cloud. If multiple copies are stored properly in different locations, fire, water, mold, and insects will no longer be a problem. Instead of looking for that one piece of paper stored in a forgotten location, digital documents are easily duplicated and stored in multiple locations for safe keeping.
Searching for digital documents also can be fast and easy. We all know about Google's ability to search quickly through billions of web pages to quickly find the specific items we seek. The same technology can be used to search through a few thousand digital documents stored on your computer's hard drive and/or in the cloud.
Properly stored, digitized documents can be converted to new formats as the technology changes. As a result, digital documents can be preserved for centuries, if needed.
Given the benefits of digital documents, why not go paperless? I suspect one reason is that many people do not know how. A second reason is one of sheer volume: "I have thousands of pieces of paper, where I should I begin?"
The old saying of "The longest journey begins with a single step" seems to apply here. I suggest that you not dive in and immediately try to digitize a huge backlog. Instead, try going paperlite. "Paperlite" is a term that means REDUCING the amount of paper, although perhaps not eliminating it entirely.
In fact, according to Joe Kissell of Macworld (at http://www.macworld.com/article/2043300/the-mac-office-embracing-the-nearly-paperless-future.html), "The biggest barrier to a paperless office may be the very word paperless. Going paperless doesn't have to be all or nothing to be effective."
I would suggest temporarily ignoring the backlog of paper that has accumulated over the years. Instead, start with new paper received TODAY or to be received in the future. You can deal with the backlog at a future date, after you have established easy methods of going digital with current documents. Or you can do what I did: ignore the backlog. Let it sit in the piles and boxes and filing cabinets forever. After all, that's where it will be if you don't go paperless or paperlite. Why change now? Instead, I suggest you leave the old paper where it is and look only at today's problems. You should work to simplify your future. Once the future is simplified, you can think about going back and digitizing the backlog that accumulated before you started a paperless life.
In her story Get Organized: Adopting Paperless Notes at http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2400422,00.asp, Jill Duffy of PC Magazine says, “Do not try to quit paper cold turkey. Pick one specific area where you will give up paper notes.” No matter where you decide to start on your paperlite journey, it doesn’t have to happen overnight. “Remember, this is a long-term project. Don’t try to sort and organize every paper in your entire home in one day,” says Heather Levin of Money Crashers at https://filethis.com/1556/filethisfetch/going-paperless/.
One of the biggest sources of paper in my life used to be the mailman. Bank statements, utility bills, and other non-advertising documents seemed to arrive in the mail every day. Yet the companies that send those documents are very aware of ever-escalating postage costs, printing costs, labor to stuff the envelopes, and more. Most companies are actively working to reduce the amount of paper they send every year. Their goals are complementary to my goals and to yours as well!
The business world is, in fact, making slow but steady progress toward paper reduction. For example, the use of office paper decreased by 40 percent from 2000 to 2011 (see http://goo.gl/pPLpXP), and it is now rare to find banks, utilities, insurance companies, and other services that don’t offer paperless billing and payments. To reduce the paper in your life, sign up NOW for paperless billing. Those bills and statements should arrive in email, not in old-fashioned snail mail. Go to each company's web site and sign up for paperless billing. Many companies refer to it as "going green."
What about all those documents that come into your life that are already in electronic form? Anytime you have the impulse to print something that arrived in email, simply create a PDF file instead. In Go Paperless: Stop Printing Everything and Enjoy the Digital Life at http://www.howtogeek.com/163015/go-paperless-stop-printing-everything-and-enjoy-the-digital-life/, Chris Hoffman of How To Geek says, “Print to PDF: Anything you might want to print—whether it’s a receipt, document, email, or web page—can be printed to a PDF file.” Every Macintosh and all the newer versions of Windows already have built-in "print to PDF" software. If you are using an older version of Windows without the ability to create PDF files, a number of third-party products will add that functionality. Many of those third-party PDF products are available free of charge.
Next, start paying your bills online. I do that for almost everything. In fact, I had to write a paper check a while ago for repairs to my home. The carpenters could not accept a credit card. They wanted cash or a check, and I didn't have that much cash on hand. It took a while for me to find my checkbook (it's paper, right?), and when I did find it and open it, I noticed the last paper check I had written was more than six months ago! I believe that qualifies me as a paperlite person.
Paying bills online saves paper and postage. Just ask the U.S. Social Security Administration. I think they used to send more checks than anyone else. On March 1 of this year, the Treasury Department stopped sending paper checks for Social Security, disability, and other benefits in an effort to cut costs. Instead, the Treasury Department now distributes funds electronically, either via direct deposit or on a prepaid "Direct Express" debit card. Details may be found at http://goo.gl/KM9YF4.
Bills and statements that are received via email are easily saved on a hard drive and in the cloud. I recommend you do both to protect yourself from hardware problems. With Dropbox, Evernote, SpiderOak, SugarSync, and dozens of other programs, it is quick and easy to save digital documents in multiple locations with only a few mouseclicks, providing multiple backup copies in multiple locations.
What do you do for incoming mail or for receipts made by a cash register at a local store? Digitize those documents and then throw the originals away!
Online catalogs (you already stopped receiving paper catalogs, right?) list hundreds of scanners that will digitize most anything. I wrote recently about an expensive, but useful, scanner made for use with Evernote. (See http://goo.gl/xHNd54.) However, you don't need those sophisticated, expensive devices to get started. You probably already own everything you need to digitize incoming paper: a digital camera.
When I am in a hurry, I use the camera built into my cell phone. It doesn't produce professional-grade pictures but, then again, I don't need super high resolution images. A picture taken with my cell phone's camera produces images that are much better than the typical photocopy. We have all used photocopies for years, so why not switch to better-looking digital images that are easier to store and to retrieve? Most digital cameras can easily transfer the images to Windows, Macintosh, and other computers for long-term storage. In turn, those computers can copy the images to other disks and to the cloud for backup purposes. Those images can easily replace the originals or photocopies. I almost always throw the originals away.
A few exceptions are noted: when I receive a new driver's license or a new passport, I scan it immediately and save the digital images for backup purposes, as described above. However, I don't throw the original away! You will find a very few other documents that should be preserved as originals. The goal is to throw away MOST paper but perhaps not everything.
When going on a research trip to an archive or a library, I now rarely make photocopies. Whenever possible, I take a picture of the document I wish to copy. In the rare times that I do make a photocopy, I take it home, scan it or make a photograph of it, and then throw the photocopy away. I don't want to be burdened with paper storage and retrieval issues.
When creating copies from microfilm or microfiche, many libraries now have direct microfilm or microfiche-to-flash drive copiers. The devices at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and a few other libraries will do that, plus they also will send a digital image to any email address you specify. I usually send the images to my own email address. I can electronically file and organize those images after I return home. In all cases, the digital images made from microfilm always look better than the old-fashioned photocopies made on paper from the same microfilms. Which would you prefer?
So, now what do you do with that pile of digital documents you’ve created? If you leave them on your hard drive without an off-site backup, they are in as much danger as your paper documents would be during a fire or flood. A major hard drive crash could wipe out everything you decided was important enough to keep. The solution here is a secure, cloud-based document storage system such as FileThis, Dropbox, Evernote, SpiderOak, SugarSync, or any of the dozens of others. These services offer searching and sorting features along with instant access from any device, anywhere.
Going totally paperless may not be realistic, at least immediately. A better and more practical approach is to go paperlite. Reduce your paper addiction as much as possible, even though you know you will not be completely free of paper for some time yet.
According to Ari Meisel of LessDoing.com, “Being paperless means you’re not only doing good for the environment, but you are enabling yourself to live on your own terms, accessing ‘paper’ from anywhere in the world, automating its handling and outsourcing it to those better suited to deal with it so you can focus on the things you really want.”
So, given the benefits of digital documents, why not go paperless or at least paperlite?
You may not be able to achieve a completely paperless life, but that doesn’t mean the paperless office is a myth or failure, any more than the fact that you can still drive a car makes airplanes a failure.
If you take nothing else away from this story, remember that going paperlite is not an all-or-nothing proposition. “The important thing is to start.”