Tame Your Paperwork With a Scanner

You want to run your business, but letters, bills, receipts, and other paper documents keep piling up. Some must be kept for years as tax records. What can we do with this growing mountain of paper, besides buy another filing cabinet? Here’s the answer…

Don’t File It, Scan It!

We’re buried in paper, despite our best attempts to stay organized. Fred Sanford’s “put it back in the mailbox” solution only works for a limited time, so fortunately there’s a better solution. Digital scanners create space-saving electronic replicas of any document. And with the right software, information can be extracted from digital scans and saved in Microsoft Office and other useful formats that allow you to recall a document with a keyword search.
The Neat Company specializes in just that kind of solution. Originally named NeatReceipt, the firm bundles digital scanners with its proprietary software that extracts data from scanned documents and turns it into meaningful digital reports. Business cards scanned with the Neat system, for instance, are automatically converted into Outlook contact records. Receipts are parsed into Excel worksheet cells, generating expense reports for tax purposes. Paper documents can be turned into editable, searchable text.
Digital Scanners - OCR
EdocScan is a software package that will save scanned items in a searchable database. It can scan or import previously scanned invoices, bank statements, and other documents. And when needed, you can export the information to an Excel spreadsheet for analysis or tax preparation.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is at the heart of these scanning technologies. Raw digital scans are simply images composed of pixels, not text characters. OCR recognizes the patterns of pixels that form characters and translates them into text that can be manipulated and edited.
Many scanners today tout their ability to create PDF files. But not all take the extra step of using OCR to create an invisible overlay of human-readable text, which makes the PDF searchable. A searchable PDF is one whose text you can search when you have the PDF file open. It’s also useful to file search utilities that have the ability to search for words inside a file. Have you ever looked through a stack of paper documents, searching for one page that contained a specific word or phrase? For example, let’s say you have a bunch of printed bank or credit card statements. When it’s tax time, and you’re looking for a specific transaction. If you scan those documents into searchable PDFs, the search becomes almost trivial.

Popular Scanners and OCR Software

In addition to the Neat product line, the Fujitsu ScanSnap familyof scanners all feature scan-to-PDF and OCR capabilities. Prices range from about $189 to $495, and the ScanSnap scanners come in a spectrum of forms from ultra-portable to high-speed office workhorse. My accountant uses a ScanSnap to create PDF copies of all my tax documents, instead of making paper copies that would need to be filed in a cabinet. The Kodak Scanmate i1120 scanner can scan a business card or a document up to 34 inches long. The WorldocScan 400 by PenPower is a mobile scanner that sells for around $100. Canon’s CanoScan $79.99 LiDE210 Color Image Scanner ($79) also makes searchable PDFs.

If you’re converting paper documents to computer files, regular hard drive backups are all the more important! See my article Free Backup Software Options for some backup tips, tools and strategies.

If you already have a scanner, you need only some software to make searchable PDFs. Scan2PDF (http://scan2pdf.org) is a German software package that works with home or commercial scanners, and even with digital cameras, to produce searchable PDF files. It runs under all versions of Windows. Scan2PDF is free to try for 30 days, and costs about $40 to register.
Perhaps even easier, you can try a few online options that require no hardware or software. I recently discovered that Google Drive will automatically convert PDFs (up tp 2MB in size) into searchable text, if you configure the upload settings in a certain way. OnlineOCR.net is a free web-based service that lets you upload PDF, JPG and other graphical formats (up to 4MB), and convert into plain text, Word and other formats. In supports 30+ languages, and will even accept ZIP files containing multiple input documents.
No OCR software is perfect. The layout, color, contrast, font style, and many other aspects of the source document affect the quality of your results. If the critical key word(s) on your scanned receipt are misspelled by OCR software, you may never find it in a search. Since the searchable text in a PDF file is invisible, you can’t even proofread it. That’s why I often scan into a Word document, where the OCR’d text is visible and can be edited to clean up any errors.
Scanning paper documents to PDF or other digital formats is a great way to save space, preserve the document’s readability, and make them more useful. Well-designed file-naming and folder systems are all the organization that most users will need for their digital scans.
Do you have something to say about digital scanners, optical character recognition, or searchable PDFs? Post your comment or question below…

More Posts about Productivity:

  • 400 Free Tools For Business Building

  • Mobile Scanning for Fun and Profit

  • 7 Tools To Build Your Virtual Office

  • Google Drive for Work vs MS OneDrive for Business

  • Tame Your Paperwork With a Scanner


  1. I don’t know about the USA but in the UK, I would check with your Tax office and get any permission(s) to get rid of receipts etc. in writing and regularly (in case they change their minds).
    I was self employed running small (micro) businesses all my working life and have been through a ‘few’ audits by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and having kept everything for at least 7 years is a requirement if you don’t want ‘problems’.
    The only tips that work with most Tax people are to be polite, non-confrontational and remember manners cost nothing – the Tax workers are just doing their job and if you make the meeting pleasant they usually respond in kind.
    If I was a Tax person I would want to see originals and can’t see why they wouldn’t, proof is everything.
    P.S. Herself is an accountancy type person from California and has dealt with many shoe boxes of paperwork in her life. She is jibbering at the thought of some of her clients being let loose with scanners and digital receipts. ‘Shredders – Oh my God!’ was one comment that escaped her lips.

  2. Thanks Bob for this one. I have a scanner built into my HP PhotoSmart printer. Recently I had to fill out a huge set of medical records forms for my doctor & Medicare. I thought, “oh boy” how I would love to have OCR software that would allow me to scan and then type in my answers and check the boxes rather than having to print or write by hand (which in my case is nearly illegible). I’m going to try out the OCR on-line. My need for OCR is only very occasional. Thanks again.

  3. I have a few thousand typed documents that I would like to scan in order to build a digital library. Unfortunately, this would be very time-consuming and laborious with my printer/scanner. Someone suggested that there are machines which can do the job automatically. No doubt, the purchase price would not be justifiable. Any suggestions please?
    EDITOR’S NOTE: You can find scanners with sheet feeders. The ScanSnap iX500 is one example, at about $495. Neatdesk has one for about $350.

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