Document Imaging Products Help Schools Eliminate "Paper Jams"

Nearly everyone has had the experience of trying to locate information in overflowing binders, filing cabinets or boxes. All too often, the search ends in frustration, with the desired document submerged in a sea of paper. In education, where administrators and teachers generate reams of printed documents, typed forms and handwritten memos each week, the problem can be especially acute. Luckily, technological solutions exist to help schools of all sizes move toward the dream of a "paperless office." So-called document imaging systems convert paper records into electronic bits and bytes, instantly accessible at a few taps of the keyboard. The benefits of such technology are continuous. Not only is premium office space freed up, personnel can more efficiently retrieve (and share) important data. Document integrity and lifespan are also enhanced, since paper files may be easily damaged by water, fire or human error. This article surveys some of the imaging products on the market today and how they can solve specific document-handling problems found in educational institutions. What's Involved The basic hardware involved in any document imaging system are a computer; high-speed document scanner; a large-screen monitor for previewing scanned images; an optical disc drive or other storage device; and a printer. Specialized software packages contain the necessary tools to scan, index, compress, store and retrieve documents. These components may be acquired separately, or together as a turnkey solution. Costs vary significantly depending on the capabilities desired. One fundamental division is between stand-alone configurations and networked systems, to be discussed later. Before selecting products, experts recommend that organizations consider the approximate number of documents they plan to image, whether they need to keep records "active" or "archived," and how they wish to input and output information. Real-Life Example At the Burbank (Calif.) Unified School District, for example, which comprises 19 schools with 13,500 students, officials recently transferred employee and other records to optical discs. Each 5.25" disc holds the equivalent of 20,000 sheets of paper, accessible with Compulink's LaserFiche software. The school previously stored records on microfilm. "It took forever to find files," recalls Ingrid Nonnast, the district's computer support specialist. "First you had to check the reference books to see which roll of film to mount, and then spin it back and forth looking for the record." Sporting a client-server architecture with a NetWare Loadable Module (NLM), LaserFiche allows Burbank's system to grow with its network and imaging needs. The advantages of a networked system are obvious. With a stand-alone unit, only one person at a time can retrieve files. With a client-server architecture, however, one or more computers act as servers; a user at any workstation enters the search criteria, and the server delivers only those files on the "Hit List" to their desktop. Most document imaging packages these days run on the Windows platform. An off-the-shelf program for the Macintosh, IMAXIS 2.1 from Systems Engineering Solutions, includes tools for scanning, compression, OCR, full-text search, cataloging and catalog search, annotations and bookmarks. With IMAXIS, one defines a "drawer" for each unique set of documents, along with the profile information needed to identify and locate documents within that drawer. Individual workgroup members then add specific drawers to their "collections." Documents are stored on magnetic disk, optical disc, jukebox or tape. Choosing Storage Media According to Mike Raab, president of Optical Laser, a digital imaging products dealer and service bureau, the storage media chosen should reflect the nature of the information: hard disks, because of their fast access speeds, suit frequently retrieved (or revised) data; optical discs, such as CD-ROMs, better suit voluminous archived data. Raab says "there is no such thing as a cookie-cutter system." He strongly advises that schools think twice before purchasing a very low-end, inexpensive product because it might carry serious functional limitations. Fax/Modems Fuel Demand Finally, Raab notes that training personnel to efficiently index and locate information is key. Simply dumping tons of documents onto a computer won't accomplish much. "You have to totally change the way you view your paper flow." He sees the proliferation of fax/ modems as further fueling the drive for electronic document systems. In addition, as more information originates in digital form, like e-mail, it makes even greater sense to organize files on a computer, rather than spend time and money printing pages. Caere's PageKeeper imports faxed documents (in PCX or DCX format) just as it would scanned documents. Its OCR engine has been enhanced with AnyFax technology for high-quality fax recognition. The software keeps a single electronic original of documents -- compressed at ratios of 50:1 -- and lets users access it via a "copy" from multiple folders. Files can be dragged and dropped from any folder to another. Plus, when it's time to share information, one may fax text or images, attach them to an e-mail message, copy them to the Windows clipboard, or export them in over 42 word processing formats. Another package from Caere, OmniForm, converts paper forms to electronic versions without additional drawing or formatting. Similarly, TransForm Suite from mips Dataline America recognizes not only text, but also boxes, lines, rectangles, paragraphs, logos, check boxes and other objects. The applications for electronic forms are growing, especially as more educators in district offices and college departments conduct business over the Internet and other online services. With a digitizer pad, one can even capture signatures into a purchase order, payroll record, etc. Sophisticated Searching Also a recent trend, more sophisticated search capabilities let users find, sort through and manipulate information -- even when they don't know exactly what document they're looking for or where it is stored. For instance, from XSoft, a division of Xerox, comes Visual Recall software, which features 3D "Tree" and "Grid" views that help one understand large numbers of documents at a glance. Display criteria may be changed on-the-fly to group files by author, date or content attribute. Its TextDataBase engine, based on linguistic research at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), analyzes documents as they are indexed into the system, matching words to their roots and derivations at high speed. That means a search for "mouse" will also turn up "mice," and vice versa. Similar linguistic indexing is available in French and German. Turnkey Solutions Finally, some schools may wish to purchase a turnkey document management solution from a single vendor. New to Panasonic's line of electronic filing systems (EFSs), the Model KV-F51PD scans documents at 40 ppm and stores them onto 128MB 3.5" optical discs. The main unit comprises a CPU, full-page LCD monitor, keyboard, mouse, optical disc drive and floppy drive. A duplex scanner accommodates document sizes from business card to legal, in weights from onion skin to card stock. Beth & Howell, a leading manufacturer of document scanners, offers The Simplifiler, which files each document by up to eight different descriptors. Five levels of security are built-in. The IBM BookManager family, meanwhile, supports the creation and online reading of electronic books. Users who cannot read conventional print can access books with voice synthesizers or other adaptive equipment such as large-print screens or Braille printers. It should be noted that a large number of firms not mentioned in this article make scanners, optical storage devices, etc. that can be combined to create a document imaging system. A valuable resource for consumers is the Products and Services Reference Guide, published annually by Xplor International. Over 40 companies are currently working to define an enterprise-wide specification, known as DMA, that would allow end-users to find, capture, use and share documents from different document management systems across different platforms and networks. As with any major technology installation, technical support should be considered. Kodak Business Imaging Systems' field engineers perform a preventative maintenance check each time they service equipment, and can respond to many problems using remote diagnostics. With the proper document management solution, educators should discover that an abundance of information truly lies at their fingertips, not buried in a cluttered cabinet.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.