Microfilm Today


3. Getting started

Elements of a modern microfilm system.

Every microfilm system requires a method of capturing input, a facility to store the film, an indexing system to make its content retrievable and provision for enabling and controlling access. Software is often required to manage these processes and to record changes, monitor usage, impose controls on access to sensitive information, authorise amendment or annotation and schedule eventual archiving or destruction.

Information gathering

It is impossible to plan a microfilm system without knowing the requirements of its future users, the information they need to access, the volume of documents or films they have already accumulated and the average additions per week or month.

It is then necessary to decide what metadata (indexing and retrieval information) must be associated with each image or group of images, Thought must be given to how each document type will be stored at each stage of its life-cycle and whether it represents a record which must be held permanently or for a specified period. Security factors must be considered - is the content confidential? If so who is authorised to see it and who must be denied access? Is the information contained in the document subject to controls specified by company rules, regulatory authorities, the inland revenue or the data protection act?

Other factors include methods of monitoring the system to ensure that it is meeting user needs and that all controls are working effectively. Methods of disposal and certification must be established for documents when they reach the end of their retention period.

Estimating volumes and document preparation

When existing paper files will form part of the input to the system, some estimate of the volume of existing pages is essential. It will normally be impractical to undertake an actual count but a useful rule of thumb is that when documents are held in suspended files each full drawer will hold around 2500 pages - so a typical 4 drawer filing cabinet might hold about 10,000 sheets. If the drawers are packed to capacity in manila folders there may be as many as 14,000 sheets per cabinet. Transfer boxes hold around 900 documents and a lever-arch file holds around 750 when fully loaded.

Document preparation for filming or scanning usually takes longer than anticipated. Paper files that have been in use over a long period will probably be dog-eared, dirty and out of sequence. Some pages may be torn and mended with sticky tape, some pages will be stapled together and others may still be with users and must be retrieved. This applies particularly to legacy documents, but even current documentation can be similarly affected.

Once armed with the answers to these questions, it is possible to start planning the new system. Software must be selected that is capable of handling the anticipated volume of input, user requirements and security considerations. If future expansion into other areas such as business process management is a possibility it is essential to ensure that the software provides for it or that suitable additional software is available that will integrate with the system. Help will almost certainly be needed by those who lack experience. If a bureau is to be be employed to handle input and indexing it will probably be able to assist with software selection, but may be limited to a narrow range of products with which it is familiar. Independent consultants are a more expensive option but can be justified if the project is complex or involves unusual requirements.

Selecting suitable EDM software

This is the difficult bit! The novice should not attempt it without impartial advice. Only general guidelines can be given because so much depends on the actual application but there are four main options:-

1. Commission a purpose-designed system or design one using available software toolkits.

2. Purchase components from several sources and combine them with the help of a professional systems integrator.

3. Identify a commercial document management system that closely matches your requirements and negotiate with its vendor for any alterations or the integration of sub-systems needed to meet your needs.

4. Buy a self-contained EDM package that will run on a PC.

The first option is best avoided if possible because a purpose-made system is difficult to cost or schedule, whether it is created internally or by a software house. So much ready-made software now exists that this method is seldom necessary unless the application is very unusual. Some of the most dramatic failures in government document management systems have been due to spiralling costs of software development and/or implementation.

The second option can be very effective if you are able to locate the right integrator but nobody is an expert on everything, so it is important to ensure that the selected components have previously been successfully integrated and that they are ones with which the integrator is familiar. In particular, a specification must be prepared which establishes cost, time scales and clear responsibility in the event of failure, because such combinations create an ideal opportunity for disputes regarding liability.

The third option is the most common and usually the safest, because the prime system supplier can be made responsible for the entire system. In many cases any desired sub-systems will already have been integrated for other clients and any problems resolved. This option is the easiest to schedule and cost because all of the factors should be known, but several suppliers should be contacted to locate the one with the greatest experience of the combination required.

The fourth option is mainly for smaller users. Shrink-wrapped packages exist which offer a wide range of document management facilities straight out of the box. They are usually inexpensive and well designed, but they do have limitations and claims that a single-user package can be infinitely expanded into an enterprise-wide application must be treated with caution. It may be difficult to integrate software from other sources or otherwise modify the package as some agents and re-sellers have limited experience beyond implementation of the standard product.

EDM systems can be entirely based on PCs but the majority in current use adopt the client/server approach in which users run special software on their desktop PCs while the database is held on one or more servers. An increasing number of newer systems are web-based and users only require simple browsers for access without special additional software.

Using a bureau or operating in-house

An experienced bureau can greatly assist with system design and implementation. Bureau assistance is particularly valuable for conversion of current documentation prior to the implementation of a new system and also the scanning of any backlog that requires rapid access.  If sufficient equipment is purchased to convert large quantities of backlog in-house, it is likely to stand idle once the work has been completed. Most bureaux offer high security to ensure the confidentiality of documents removed for scanning but, if security is a critical factor, scanning can often be performed by the bureau at the client’s premises. Some bureaux offer a full facilities management service whereby they will supply staff and equipment and manage the entire operation of an in-house document management system - this is virtually essential if the bureau is to manage a digital mailroom.

Because most bureaux offer both filming and document scanning services, it is sensible to examine the advantages of having new paper input filmed as well as scanned, sending the originals to be destroyed after the film and data has been verified. Many clients are aware of the danger of totally entrusting their records to electronic storage and send original documents to remote archives after they have been scanned rather than authorise their destruction.  Storage on film is often a more cost effective solution. It is important to remember that in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the “best evidence” rule requires that the original document be produced in evidence unless a satisfactory reason can be given to the court for the unavailability of the original. Strictly applied, when originals are not destroyed, this involves a search through a remote archive for the original paper document. Such searches can be tedious, especially when the desired document has been filed as an item in a large batch which has been well shuffled during previous searches.

There is a strong trend towards outsourcing all operations outside the mainstream activity of organisations, but there is a major difference between modern systems and the simple filing and retrieval methods which used to be employed for document management. Early systems were effectively electronic filing cabinets and the documents had often been processed before being sent for filing - they were still important as records, but a delay in gaining access to them did not bring the organisation to its knees. Today a document may never be seen in its original form by those responsible for processing it - typically, it may arrive as an electronic file and pass automatically to all employees authorised to act on its content. Such information represents the very life blood of an organisation and any company entrusted to scan, index, distribute and store it must be reliable and financially secure. However large a service facility may be, it is necessary to establish how the system could continue if the service supplier ceased trading.

In house production is not for the faint-hearted. Staff will have to be trained and experienced managers will be needed to monitor performance and keep the system synchronised with technical developments.  A bureau can usually quote a fixed price for specific operations but it is often difficult to schedule and cost the planning, input and indexing elements of a system when inexperienced staff will be involved. If problems arise, an established bureau will probably have encountered them before and will be able to propose a solution. If volumes are greater than anticipated a bureau will have sufficient capacity to handle the extra workload.

As a general rule, a service house is the best choice for a new system - once experience has been gained a change to in-house production can be considered. If the project represents an extension to an existing system, sufficient experience may already be available in-house to go it alone.

Thorough planning pays dividends

A well designed and properly implemented document management system can bring very substantial gains in customer service, security and general efficiency - but careful planning and reliable estimates of volumes are essential for success. As independent consultants G G Baker & Associates have frequently been called in to sort matters out when things did not go according to plan and the most frequent cause was failure to estimate the workload correctly.

The problem of poor preparation and planning is international as the following extract from a Spanish newspaper illustrates...  "Madrid's national high courts have over-run the last government's 'zero paper' deadline. It was decided in 2009 to scan the thousands of documents that reach the courts, after which they would be sent via computer to the relevant departments. The new system would also be connected to other Justice Ministry computer systems dealing with trials, notifications and communications. But the changeover has been done badly, too quickly and without sufficient resources according to the 600 employees involved, who claimed that the courts were close to unprecedented collapse. Misplaced documents, crossover data errors between files and loss of chronological sequence between sentences has created a panorama resembling a battlefield. The new system, which workers claim repeatedly crashes, was originally to have been extended from litigation courts to all national  and supreme courts in Madrid, together with prosecution departments dealing with drugs and organised crime.....With staff unable to cope, the project has been outsourced to a subcontractor whose employees were, until only a few days ago, handling documents which should have been seen only by authorised staff. To complicate matters further this has since been reported to the official Data Protection Agency. The situation is reportedly so shambolic that similar plans for national criminal courts have now been discarded."

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1. Introduction

2. Microfilm today

3. Getting started

4. Input and output methods

5. Indexing and retrieval

6. Management and control

7. Storage and preservation

8. Hybrid systems

9. Services available

10. Standards

Webmaster: Gerald Baker     Last update 19/7/2018     © G G Baker & Associates 2018