Many years ago, I bought a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. I had owned other scanners, but the ScanSnap had some attractive features. Using their included software, you could initiate scans from the scanner. It was sheet-fed (I’d previously just had flatbed scanners). You could drop odd pieces of paper in it, push a button, and they’d scan through. If they were crooked, they’d get straightened in software. It scanned both sides simultaneously, flipped the documents if they were upside-down or sideways, performed optical character recognition (OCR) to add searchable text to the image, and saved everything in a PDF file.

I positioned the scanner on my workbench, with a shredder directly under it. Medicine was (to a great degree, it still is) a massively paper intensive profession. I got thick stacks of paper in the mail every day, plus keeping track of hundreds of forms from dozens of insurance companies, referral forms for labs and imaging, state-mandated forms, federal mandated forms, specialized prescription forms, prior authorization forms and on and on and on. I still liked to keep a lot of articles available locally and not in some transient cloud or subscription service. Add to those all the forms related to starting a business, and everything associated with being a single dad, and I was being buried in paper.

Just finding a way (and space!) to file all those papers would have been overwhelming. But I noticed that 99+% of the papers I dealt with were things I would likely never need again. Unfortunately, there was no way to know in advance when I’d have to be able to fish something up.

scan, shred…

I started taking all the paper that came in and scanning it. Then, unless there was something unusual about the paper that absolutely required an original copy, everything went immediately from the scanner to the shredder. Now, instead of big stacks of paper on my desk waiting to be filed, I had stacks of files on the computer. It doesn’t sound like much progress, but consider that stacks of documents on the computer never fall over, never get reshuffled by the cat, never get re-arranged by the cleaning crew. Still, there’s the problem of how to file everything so I could find it again. (Filing is a strange problem, in that you have to anticipate now how you’ll be thinking about a document many years in the future.)

…and heap

The answer was to simply not do it. The PDF files, thanks to OCR, were searchable. I could just keep everything in an electronic folder (labeled “!!!stuff!!!” for historical reasons that no longer apply). On that one case out of every hundred when I actually needed to retrieve a document, I could search on its content. That wasn’t always trivial, but the time I saved by not having to come up with a future-proof filing system for the other 99 documents more than made up for the effort I occasionally had to put into search.

Many years after starting this system, I was refinancing my house. It was a few years after the horror that was the 2008 financial system collapse that resulted in harsh prison sentences for the hundreds of vicious criminals that caused so much pain (just kidding; I don’t think a single bank president even served a day of jail time). Anyway, lenders were under much greater scrutiny and passing the pain on to their customers. My mortgage broker called me, and I explained that I was parked on the street outside my son’s school waiting for him to be dismissed. He apologetically gave me a crazy list of documents that the bank was going to require to fund the loan. I had been using the wait time to get work done, however, so I had my laptop open and tethered to my phone for internet access. About a dozen apologies later (it really was a ridiculous list) I told him to check his email, where he would find scans of all the obscure, ancient documents the lender had requested. I would never have been able to find even half those documents if they had been in paper files, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it from my parked car.

There are some gotchas. OCR is only just beginning to get good at handwritten text, so when I scan a document with no machine-printed text I do have to add some search terms to the file name. Errors happen, too, and some documents require some creativity coming up with search terms that get around the mangled text. On some rare occasions, I’ve even had to estimate when a document was scanned and manually search through the images: even that is easier on the computer than with paper, though.

A bonus is that I have copies of documents I never would have bothered to file in the first place. Occasionally, that’s been magnificent.

Another bonus is that, because I keep really good encrypted backups of my computer both locally and in the cloud (someone else’s computer), I never have to worry about losing my history or any legally critical documents through fire, theft, or other catastrophes.

Scan. Shred. Heap. Simplify your life.


Addendum: I should point out that I gave up on the Fujitsu (and it might now be Ricoh) software that came with the scanner. It was very good, but it was proprietary and there were times when they were too slow to issue compatibility updates. Once they threatened to go cloud-only, a real no-no for anyone who cares about document confidentiality. Before I bought my first Fujitsu, I had purchased VueScan to get a Canon scanner working when Canon had stopped updating their software. When I started having trouble with the ScanSnap software, I discovered that my ancient copy of VueScan had been kept up to date to work with new versions OS’s (Macos, Linux, and even Windows) and new scanner hardware. It’s a small family business and they’re very attentive to their customers, even ones who bought a one-time license decades ago.

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