When it comes to documents you need to save for a really long time and simply not worry about it, you basically have two choices. Either you backup the files to tape, or you print it out and rescan it into the computer using a scanner and OCR (optical character recognition) software.
What’s a “really long time”? Any length of time more than 5 years. While true in a human perspective that 5 years really isn’t a long time at all, in the computer world it’s the equivalent of 20. Why? Because things come and go on the internet very quickly all the time.
For example, Apple just shut down their MobileMe service. If you were a user of that service, you will have to login, grab your files out of there and move them elsewhere. And bear in mind MobileMe was a paid service, so you can’t even trust that cloud providers you pay for will be around tomorrow.
Another example is webmail. If I asked how many of you out there have lost an important email, a bunch of you would say yes – and it happens across many webmail systems (even Gmail).
DVDs and USB sticks can’t be trusted for any extended length of time, because as cliché as this sounds, they’re just not made like they used to be. For short-term document storage, sure, they’re fine. But for 5 years or longer? You run a risk of losing document data after a few years.
Paper, scanners and OCR are reliable – and much cheaper than tape.
And even if you stored your paper in a non-fireproof, non-waterproof box, it’s still more reliable than trusting a data storage medium.
How to set up your long-term document storage
1. Buy a better-than-average flatbed scanner
Quality flatbed USB scanners are fortunately fairly cheap these days. The two that I recommend are the Epson Perfection V30 and the Canon CanoScan LiDE110. To note, the Epson does have better optical resolution, so if you’re willing to spend a few extra bucks, go with that one.
2. Get familiar with OCR software
Your scanner may come with bundled OCR software, and if it does, try that first and it’s designed to operate properly with the scanner you have. Otherwise, try FreeOCR; a very easy and totally free OCR software title that anyone can learn in 5 minutes or less.
3. Print your documents using larger sans-serif style fonts (if possible)
Serif means “Times New Roman”, sans-serif means “Arial” and monospace means “Courier New” to most people concerning typefaces. More often than not it is easier for OCR software to correctly read sans-serif over serif, because without the little serifs the software can more easily determine what a character (as in a letter or number) actually is.
What type of documents should you store for the long term?
It’s increasingly common these days that many people enter into contract agreements without ever seeing any paper.
Example 1: If you’re a business owner and you use some means of conducting credit transactions online-only, you had to “sign” something to enable that, which of course involved a contract. That contract should be printed to paper and stored.
Example 2: Many times when you ship things, you never get any paper or emails proving you did so at all. You simply use something like the UPS online tracking system to track packages, but do you have a record of it after the package was succesfully shipped? Probably not. Again, for those of you who are business owners, you should print out a record every single thing you ship. Should a customer try to give you the runaround 5 weeks after something was shipped and say, “I never got it”, you can break out the paper, scan it, OCR it, and email it to prove that yes, you did.
Example 3: You should also print shipping records of when you received items, if for nothing else than to know if something you bought online a year ago is still under warranty or not. There are many types of item purchases that consider when you received the item physically to be the start of the warranty period, so that’s information you should print out. And if you need it later on, once again, drag out the paper, scan it, OCR it and email it if need be.
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