How Governments Can Address the Document Deluge

Ann Kirkbride is Avenu’s senior product manager for the Digital Processing Group. For much of her career she has served state and local government by introducing  records management technologies such as OCR data extraction and intelligent automation for auto-indexing/redaction. Here she discusses the state of records management for governments and solutions to keep serving citizens in the decades ahead. 

What has changed of late with document management?

Just in the last few years there’s been an explosion of services and products available online. Food delivery, personal transportation, entertainment – almost anything can be obtained with an app. This has increased everyone’s expectations about services in general, including government. Citizens want to easily pay a traffic ticket or taxes online, for example, but most importantly they want to find what they need quickly.

For governments, that means digitizing their records so they can be found and accessed online. Everything from land to tax to historic public records needs to be searchable and discoverable.

Is there a compelling need to accelerate digitization?

Digitization is not new, and many governments have made progress in scanning their records. But there are many that have not, and there is a danger in complacency. Recall the wildfires in California, the hurricanes of recent years and any other disaster: if paper, microfilm or even a single point of electronic storage is in the path, the records will be gone. The best practice is for jurisdictions to scan records back to sovereignty when the city or county was founded.

What’s the right balance between the public’s need for access and the need for preservation?

What has happened over time is that documents have deteriorated, either from oxidation, temperature changes, or because of general use by the public. Users come into a county recorder’s office to view them and eventually pages get torn and faded.

We always recommend scanning and indexing paper documents, microfilm, microfiche or other formats into electronic files that are accessible online and via mobile devices. Then there can be redundant storage and simpler access, and the original ones can remain secure for historic purposes. Some original documents are so fragile that we use “white-glove” treatment in restoring them before scanning.

How big is the priority for digitization for jurisdictions?

It is becoming more so because so much information is being created every year and there has to be a strategy for intake, processing, retention, accessibility, and especially storage. It costs a lot to keep paper in boxes, and governments see reducing that as a way to show value.

It’s also a priority for governments to take steps and preserve certain historical documents. In some cases we see materials that were “preserved” decades ago with tape, so we apply technology that restores the documents to new condition with legible content. In other cases we transcribe documents as a way to preserve them because they were written in cursive, which is no longer widely taught in schools. Without transcription, the meaning of those documents would be lost for future generations.