Paper Records vs. Electronic Records? The Great Debate.

Scott Hambrick
Posted by Scott Hambrick

paper-records-vs-electronic-recordsShould you store your paper records or digitize your documents? We discuss pros and cons of each.

Pros of going digital

  • Miniaturization. It's much, much cheaper to store records as digital images than it is in any other format. Digital media costs drop every day. Today, digital storage costs a thousandth of what it cost just a few decades ago, so the storage costs are continually dropping for electronic images. However, as you’ll see below, the cost to convert a paper document to a digital one is often more expensive than the storage savings.
  • Ease of use. It's very easy to locate and share electronic documents. Computers aid searching AND we are able to file them by multiple indexes. In the old days - in the library - we would file all of our books or locate them by the Dewey Decimal System. All books were locatable by three indexes that were kept in three card catalogs. You could look a book up by the author, the title or the subject and find the Dewey decimal number in order to locate the physical copy. There are an unlimited number of indexes that are available to catalog and locate digital images with. If the electronic document was set up correctly in the beginning, you can use almost anything that you know about that document to find it. Additionally, the process of filing doesn't exist anymore. Your document management system will take care of finding and maintaining consistent locations for the document system, so that's super easy.
  • Labor savings. The labor required to locate, manage and dispose of electronic documents is minuscule. When I do consulting work, I often analyze work flow in accounts payable systems and I typically find that in a hard-copy payable system, my customers are spending anywhere between $3 and $8 to pay an invoice. Those costs are in the filing, collating, stapling check stubs to old invoices, pulling out POs, matching it to the invoice, stapling those together, refiling them, etcetera. With electronic documents, all of those steps can be automated and that labor completely disappears. The cost of paying an invoice approaches the cost of the check.
  • Searchability. Electronic documents can be made searchable. We can OCR a document and make the whole text keyword searchable. That is not possible with paper documents.
  • Portability. It's very easy to transport electronic documents. No more boxes of records and trucks and semi-trucks to haul records archives. They can easily be stored on a removable hard drive or thumb drive and taken to the courthouse or to the field office.
  • Version tracking is very easy with electronic documents, making it easy to see who has made changes to a document, when they made those and what the document looked like before the change. Version tracking and document management in the hard copy world is much more complex and much more costly.

Cons of going digital

  • Software risk. If you store records in an electronic document management system, you run the risk of that system being no longer supported by the software company; that the company will cease to exist; and that your documents will be locked in an unsupported system where and have to pay conversion costs to recover them. So you're somewhat at risk to the software vendor that manages your records.
  • Format risk. When storing your records as an electronic record, you run the risk of not being able to read them at some point. Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files have become the standard storage format, but there is a risk - I believe that it's small - that Adobe will cease to exist, be purchased or no longer support the PDF format, and then it will be difficult for you in the future to read those PDF documents. Adobe has attempted to address this with their PDF/A or archive PDF format, which is supported by software code escrow and other measures that should make it forward and backwards compatible for years and years to come, but it is a risk. I think everyone probably has experienced trying to open an old Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet or an old WordPerfect document and having a little bit of trouble reading those old documents. We want to avoid that.
  • Media compatibility. We still find floppy disks that we know have documents on them. We don't even have a floppy disk drive anymore. You have to maintain those images in a good, viable format, and you have to maintain those images on media that we can still access. We still manage computer backups for hundreds of companies. We get requests on a regular basis to help read floppy disks and reel-to-reel computer backup tapes. Overcoming those problems is always a risk with electronic documents.
  • Reliability. Paper is an agnostic format. All you need to have is a light source and some eyes to be able to read paper. It's a good idea to have your most vital documents imaged, but keeping a paper copy assures you have having access to them after the zombie apocalypse. Keep a paper copy of vital documents - deeds, corporate documents—stored in a safe off-site location.
  • Portability. The portability that is such an advantage for digital images is also a con. It's very easy to misplace or accidentally delete large amounts of data. It's very easy for that data to be duplicated and transported outside of your organization without your permission or knowledge. It's very easy for it to be misplaced or corrupted as well. The very properties that make it easy to use, also make it easy to steal and easy to delete if the proper safeguards aren't in place. Those safeguards can be expensive.
  • Conversion expense. It's very, very expensive to convert paper documents to digital images. The amount of labor it takes to prepare documents and analyze them so that they can be identified and indexed correctly is very large, even in our scan shop where we have incredibly fast scanners and high-end equipment. Most of the work required in document imaging is document prep. For every hour of scanning, we typically are doing four or five hours of prep, where someone is actually examining the documents for quality, consistency, identifying those documents based on a records policy and records taxonomy and then tagging them with the appropriate indexes. A lot of these steps can be automated and we make every effort to do so, but the labor and human expense required to index and image the documents is extremely expensive.


The cost of imaging a typical paper document is equal to 20 years of off-site storage. It’s simply less expensive to store most documents on shelves. Business need, convenience and regulatory requirements are the drivers of imaging decisions.

Quality control is very difficult in imaging as well. Typically, when documents are created, they are created by the person who knows the most about that document and cares the most about it, so the quality of the originals is almost always very high. In document imaging, quality control has to be watched very carefully. The compromise between high production and no defects in the output images is difficult to maintain. Without a dedicated scanning operation and a dedicated supervisor for that function, it's almost impossible to maintain acceptable quality control levels. With document imaging systems, it is garbage in, garbage out. By using distributed scanning services - meaning everyone scans their own work at desktop scanners or multifunction copier/scanner machines - it’s very difficult to maintain quality standards, find out who scanned what and when, and correct unacceptable scanning work with disciplinary action or retraining. 

Wondering if YOU would be better off with paper or digital records? Give me a call anytime (918) 664-6164 or send me an email. 

Want to learn the steps involved in going paperless? Read How to Go Paperless at Work

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-Scott Hambrick

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