Digitizing for Disaster – Part 3 – Documents

This is the final part of our 3 part series on digitizing your valuable photos and documents.  If you missed the first two parts you can click here for Part 1 on Document Strategy or here for Part 2 on Digitizing Your Photos.  This portion of the series focuses on digitizing your family’s important documents.

Just as we discussed earlier in the series with photos, documents can be incredibly important and irreplaceable.  Many of the documents in your family’s filing cabinet can be replaced, but may require long wait times and excessive effort to receive them.  By digitizing your documents before a disaster strikes, you remove the time wait time for receiving replacements following the event.  Additionally, you will have access to pertinent information to help you get back on your feet faster.

Where To Start

To start this part of the process I divided our documents into two types: “Regular” Documents and “Priority” Documents.  This was important for 2 reasons that we’ll go into more depth on in a second:

  1. Certain documents have greater value to you after a disaster than others.
  2. I wanted to use 2 different storage techniques for the 2 types of documents.

Once they were divided, we scanned them using a document scanner.  Document scanners are designed for this (thus the name “document scanner” :-)) and have several helpful features:

  1. Speed – Document scanners scan much faster than a flatbed scanner.  The sheet feeder allows you to just place the document in the scanner and hit the button to scan, instead of opening the scanner lid, placing the document, closing the lid, pushing the button, opening the lid, and removing the document like you do with a flatbed scanner.  This may seem trivial, but the few seconds of difference really add up over several thousand pages.
  2. Conversion to PDF – We were able to configure our document scanner to turn each document into a searchable PDF when it was completed.  This meant that we could use the standard file search on our computer to locate a document based on keywords in the document, not just the document’s name.
  3. Long Pages – We had some sales receipts that were longer than our flatbed scanner.  Our document scanner, however, has a feature where we can hold the scan button and it will continuously scan until we release it.
  4. Volume – Some documents have multiple pages, or you may decide that you want multiple documents to be scanned as one file (all of your utility bills for the year, for example).  The document scanner allows you to put multiple pages in the sheet feeder and have them all scan automatically.  This is a huge time saver both in reloading time and also in file merging and management time.

Caveat Again

I am fully aware that this may be controversial and some people may feel that these methods are the opposite of what they want to do.  I’m going to refer you to the caveat that I laid out in Part 1 of this series.  This is what I feel comfortable with and I would encourage everyone to find a point of comfort somewhere between keeping everything in a filing cabinet and complete digitalization (yes, I may have just made that word up…but you get the point).

Priority Documents

top secret filesThis group contains the most critical and sensitive documents you have as a family.  I would consider this the equivalent of “Top Secret”.  They include:

  • Diver’s License
  • Birth Certificates
  • Social Security Cards
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Estate Documents (will, trust, etc.)
  • Passport Cards
  • Passport
  • Other IDs

After a disaster strikes, you may need to prove your identity or reference these documents to fill out various forms.  It’s possible that scanned copies of these documents may not be accepted, but if the originals have been destroyed in you house or safe, you would at least have something to start with.

Due to the sensitive nature of these documents, I use two layers of protection:

  1. I store them on a physical USB Flash Drive.  You can also store them in the Cloud if you would like, but really investigate the level of security the company that you go with uses.  I have gone back and forth myself about storing them in our cloud backup, so this is definitely a personal preference.  If they are in the cloud they are more accessible, but if they are on a Flash Drive they don’t require an internet connection to access.
  2. I encrypt the Flash Drive.  This means that someone needs a password to even see what is on the Flash Drive.  I selected the Lexar 3.0 USB Flash Drives because they come with Encryptstick software included.  This software is already installed on the flash drive and runs from the flash drive, so you won’t need to download software to run it on whichever computer you plug it into.

These layers protect the data from anyone who might stumble upon it should the drive be lost or stolen along with other gear.

Regular Documents

documentsThis group is everything else that isn’t a Priority Document.  Any document that I think should be kept for family or business records goes in this category.  This includes:

  • Bank Statements
  • Insurance Policy Information
  • Utility Statements
  • Medical Records (Depending on the type of record you may have some that are Regular and some that are Priority)
  • Purchase Receipts
  • Home and Car Maintenance Records
  • Business Contracts and Files
  • Fun Memories (Newspaper clipping, Wedding Invitations, Cards or Letters) – Anything that would want to save from a disaster, that is paper, and not a photo.

These documents are stored in our encrypted cloud.  I use Google Drive for it’s security, affordability, and ease of use.  The files are encrypted on the server (at rest) and when you’re accessing them (in transit), so if someone hacked the server or spied on the internet connection, our files would be unreadable.  If you are concerned about files being taken from a server, you can always put them in a password protected zip file or place a password on each individual file.

Wrapping it Up

For most people digitizing their family’s documents and photos will be a pretty big project.  It took us many hours to complete.  We spread it out over several weeks though, and did most of it while watching TV in the evening.  It’s really easy to grab a stack of papers, connect your scanner to a laptop, and just feed them through while binging Netflix or your DVR.  As I said from the beginning of this series, disasters don’t care what’s on the paper they destroy, but you definitely do.

For more articles on planning click here.

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Author: Casey Feves

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