How to Protect Irreplaceable Municipal and Vital Records from Damage, Loss, or Disaster
Many documents and municipal records are considered irreplaceable, especially those that are historical in nature. Unfortunately, these paper documents are highly vulnerable to damage and destruction. Records, maps, blueprints, photos, and other documents can easily be lost, torn, misfiled, or damaged in many ways. A fire can completely destroy thousands of records in minutes. Paper documents and photographs can be damaged or destroyed by flooding, water leaks, insect infestations, or mold. The threats to these impossible-to-replace documents are virtually endless, leaving municipalities to find ways to protect these irreplaceable documents.
Document Destruction and the Impact on Compliance With Document Retention Laws and Regulations
There is also the issue of municipal records retention to consider. When a document is seriously damaged or destroyed, you must consider whether this poses a problem from a document retention standpoint.
Cities and towns must retain certain documents and records for a specified minimum timeframe. Failure to keep these documents on file can result in significant fines and penalties arising from record-keeping violations and non-compliance with regulatory compliance-related requirements.
Again, this returns us to the central question: how do you protect irreplaceable vital records, maps, blueprints, and other critical municipal documents? Enter: document digitization.
What is Document Digitization?
Documents can be digitized with relative ease using today’s technology. The process involves scanning documents, which are then retained in a digital format. Some documents — like maps, blueprints, and photos — may be kept as images, while handwritten and typed documents can be processed by optical character recognition (OCR) software that captures text from an image and converts that data into an editable and searchable text document. The most efficient OCR software features machine learning technology, which improves accuracy as the text is extracted from an image.
By digitizing documents, you extract essential data from fragile, vulnerable paper documents, preserving that information for posterity. Moreover, the information from these documents becomes far more accessible since it can be kept in a cloud-based data storage platform. This reduces the manual burden of accessing municipal documents and records. Citizens would otherwise need to go to city hall, where a staff member must manually retrieve documents from a records room. A cloud-based document storage system allows you to view and search documents remotely – all you need is an internet connection.
Organizing and Inventorying Documents is the First Step Toward Protecting Irreplaceable Vital Records and Municipal Documents
The first step toward protecting irreplaceable documents, maps, blueprints, photos, and records is thoroughly inventorying everything on file. In doing this, you may also organize these documents, making everything easy to locate. If your current filing system can be improved, revamping and reorganizing is a great opportunity.
During the inventory process, you must assess the current condition of each document, map, blueprint, photograph, or large-format record. The goal is to arrive at a prioritized to-do list for digitization so that the most fragile and valuable documents are first processed.
If a municipality is preserving historical documents requiring repairs and restoration, this would be another point of evaluation and prioritization.
Evaluating Document Damage and Planning for Remediation
As you inventory and assess municipal documents, blueprints, maps, and photos, it’s important to note any existing damage and where those items were stored when the damage occurred.
This information will be critical for repairing the damage and correcting any conditions that pose a physical threat to the municipality’s records and documents. Improper lighting conditions, unacceptable humidity levels, insects, and water leaks are just a few of the conditions that can lead to permanent damage. Therefore, you must identify any existing threats and work to remedy those issues within your records room and other storage areas. In cases of valuable historical documents and photos, it may be wise to consult a conservator specializing in preserving and restoring these irreplaceable items.
Based on the damage observed, you can develop a remediation plan to repair and prevent any additional damage to these impossible-to-replace photos, records, and documents. A conservator can also recommend storing fragile papers and photos to prevent further deterioration.
Notably, you must be sure that anyone handling these irreplaceable municipal documents, photos, and vital records does so using best practices to avoid damage. For instance, cotton gloves should be worn when handling old, fragile papers to prevent the transfer of body oils which can mar or discolor ink and paper.
Scanning and Digitizing Irreplaceable Vital Records and Documents
Beginning with the most important and most fragile documents, you’ll want to begin the process of scanning and digitizing. Large-format documents such as blueprints and maps may need to be scanned in segments, or you may outsource the task to a service provider specializing in document scanning and digitization. Care must be taken to avoid causing any additional damage to fragile items during the scanning and imaging process.
Once scanned, a document can be processed by machine learning-enhanced OCR software, which then extracts the data from the record and converts it into an editable, searchable text format. In some cases, you may retain a scanned image of the document and the OCR-extracted text content. This would be ideal for documents with a signature, stamp, seal, or other important non-text elements you wish to retain.
Once OCR technology extracts data from the documents, that text must be reviewed to ensure accuracy. Again, this is a task that you may opt to perform in-house or outsource to a service provider that specializes in document digitization processes.
The extracted text and scanned images can then be uploaded to the cloud for storage. Many municipalities may make this data public via a web-based citizen portal. Other cities and towns may choose to limit access, only allowing access via portals in city hall.
Document Preservation Software and Planning for the Future
In addition to digitizing and capturing data from all existing documents and records, a municipality must develop a plan for handling all new forms, photos, documents, blueprints, and maps. You need a defined process flow to ensure that all documents are captured digitally and added to the municipality’s database in a timely manner. A city or town must also decide whether they wish to acquire the necessary hardware and software to complete this process in-house or whether they wish to outsource document digitization tasks to a third-party service provider.
At iTech, we specialize in data management and related technologies, such as cloud-based solutions and machine-learning OCR software. We work with the client to comprehensively understand their needs, goals, and challenges. Then, we develop and deploy technologies that will help the municipality meet its objectives. Contact the iTech team today, and let’s begin a dialogue on digitizing your city’s historical documents and irreplaceable municipal records.