County digitizes 200 years of records

County digitizes 200 years of records – and stays on budget

Four years ago, Tompkins County in upstate New York had to make a decision on what to do with nearly 200 years of paper records. The vintage county library building where old records were stored was being repurposed, and a new home had to be found for more than 9,000 boxes of documents.

Financially, the decision turned out to be simple, said IT director Greg Potter. The county already had begun using some digital documents in the mid-2000s, so digitizing existing records was an option. And  building a new records storage center for paper documents would cost an estimated $6 million. “We did a cost comparison for digitizing the records we had and that came out to $500,000.”

With $600,000 in state grants, the county began scanning and digitizing documents in 2010, and two years later had converted 13 million records into electronic files. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” said Deputy County Clerk Maureen Reynolds. “And it was cheaper than I thought it was going to be.”

The files now are held on mirrored storage-area networks in two county data centers. If additional grant funding comes through as expected in the coming year, the next step is to move the electronic records to nearby secure, climate-controlled digital storage facilities. The space is being converted from Cold War-era military bunkers by Finger Lakes Technology Group (FLTG), a local networking company.

Tompkins County is at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake and has a population of about 105,000. Ithaca, the county seat, is a college town, with Cornell University and Ithaca College the largest employers. Most of the paper records maintained by the county go back only to the 1970s, but some date to 1817.

Just as important as technology in successfully moving from a paper to a digital environment is business analysis, said Katie Burke, government program manager for Laserfiche, the company that provided content management software for the conversion.

“The challenge is imagining the business process in a digital way,” Burke said. “Tompkins County has been impressive in the way it scaled the project.”

The county began reviewing operations in each agency in 2010 with an eye toward adopting a complete electronic records management strategy. The clerk’s office was one of the first to adopt digital forms and records, Reynolds said, “so it wasn’t a hard sell at all” in that office. The advantage and economy of bringing old records into the electronic system were obvious. The old records were being stored in boxes at a cost of $4,000 a month and were not really accessible.

 “I’ve never seen the boxes, and I’ve worked here 23 years,” she said.

Still, the process of scanning and converting existing files created extra work for every department, since officials had to sign off on the millions of scanned and converted documents before the paper originals could be disposed of. “We did a lot of shredding after the digitization of the records,” Potter said.

The county hired Challenge Industries of Ithaca, a non-profit company that employs the disabled, to do the scanning. Each document was scanned to a TIF (Tagged Image File Format) image and converted with optical character recognition software to an electronic file. Then

Laserfiche software classified each record according to the appropriate record retention schedule, and metadata was added so that documents could be identified and searched.

The management software creates shortcuts within the documents so that they can be stored in the folder structure the agency chooses but still can be easily searchable across folders. And although documents are classified according to the length of time they must be retained, deletion is not automatic at the end of that time.

“There is an extra layer of protection,” Burke said. Files eligible for deletion are flagged, but a person must make the decision to delete each one.

Most of the files were taken to Challenge Industries for scanning, but scanning equipment was set up in the old library for some historical material. “A lot of it was in rotting leather books,” Reynolds said. The pages of these were removed for scanning and then rebound. Each agency made its own decisions about what materials to retain after being digitized and what to destroy.

“There were interesting things in some of the boxes” that had not been opened for years, Reynolds said. One box, from the district attorney’s office, contained a stack of $100 bills. “We think it was counterfeit,” she said.

Six of FLTG’s Cold War vintage storage bunkers have been repurposed for storage and office space, and the county is using one for storing tape backups, microfilm and some paper archives. FLTG has converted one to a secure data center with back-up battery power and generators. The county is hopeful that within a year it will be able to get a high-speed fiber optic link to the center and move its electronic documents to the bunker.

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