Digitizing State Records May Not Be Cheaper, Experts Say

05/28/2017 3:30pm

By Brian Robbins State Capitol Bureau
Original article can be found online HERE.

The state of Illinois has always leased space to store documents, but recently lawmakers have been critical of the Rauner administration spending $2.4 million over five years on a Springfield warehouse.

Doing something different, like digitizing the documents, may not be that easy or inexpensive, experts say.

In some cases, paper documents have to be kept indefinitely because of state law. Digitizing them, the experts say, can be a slow and expensive process.

The Illinois Department of Transportation and other state agencies are required by the State Records Act to establish and maintain an essential records preservation program, but the statute doesn’t dictate where the records should be stored.

The state is moving to digitize state documents where it can. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s newly created Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology (DoIT) is assisting other departments with digitizing their state records.

According to DoIT, the Department of Corrections’ Prisoner Review Board has digitized 25 percent of 150,000 paper files with the goal of 50 percent by the end of 2017.

Additionally, DoIT said the transportation department has digitized approximately 700,000 images and documents containing road construction information that were previously stored on microfilm dating back to the 1990s.

Gary Dunn, records management officer at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, points out that it might seem like digitizing records would be an easy process, but it’s not.

He said moving files to a digital format isn’t like simply putting the files into a scanner. The process could take years, and someone would have to check on the files periodically to ensure the storage system wasn’t losing any information.

Dunn noted that the digitizing process can be very expensive because a department would have to hire additional workers to manage the digital documents.

“If you have a record that has to be maintained for 65 years, how many times are you going to have to (manage) that particular record?” Dunn said. “Now you’re not only digitizing, but you’ll have to have an IT force in order to manage those records. I can’t imagine the cost of everything that would go into that.”

Stored by law

For the documents that are being stored at warehouses, Illinois in fiscal 2017 is spending roughly $4 million annually on leasing its 16 state warehouses, according to the comptroller’s office. Of those 16 state warehouses, 12 are in Springfield.

The Springfield warehouses cost Illinois a total of $2.8 million a year to store documents.

The most expensive warehouse is at 5000 through 5020 Industrial Drive in Springfield. It is leased from Cagnoni/Reyhan Partnership and Industrial Drive Properties and costs the state $1.3 million annually.

To help maintain state documents, there is a State Records Commission that consists of various state offices like the Secretary of State, State Historian, Attorney General and others that meet monthly to determine what records no longer have administrative, legal or historical value and should be destroyed or disposed of.

No state record can be disposed of by any agency of Illinois, unless it is first approved by the State Records Commissions.

According to Mike Deering, spokesman for the Department of Central Management Services, which is responsible for state properties, acquisitions and services, the Rauner administration continues to seek efficient ways to store state documents.

“The Rauner administration takes its role in maintaining these records very seriously and will continue to look for ways to do that in the most cost-effective way possible, including digitizing records when appropriate,” Deering said in a written statement.

Deering noted that various agencies have the legal requirement to store files at the state’s warehouses.

“The highest-volume users of records storage are agencies that have a statutory or legal requirement to retain those files,” he said. “Staff at each agency are responsible for maintaining the records they keep in secured storage. Statutes indicating the lengths at which records are stored vary depending on the information in the file and the agency.”

Cheaper option?

Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who has been critical of the Rauner administration’s handling of warehouse space, said the state should be more active in finding the most efficient ways to store documents.

“The key is if you’re going to spend $2.4 million just to rent and hold documents (at the Springfield warehouse), you’re going to do to that forever. At some point, if you’re going to spend all this money to upgrade our systems, why wouldn’t you take a little bit of that to make sure that we get rid of five or six warehouses that cost the state $2.4 million?” he said. “Wouldn’t that cover the man hours it would cost to do it?

“I think technology is adapting well enough that as we continue to keep upgrading our systems, it would keep updating our data and archives as well.”

Johnny Hadlock, executive director at the National Association of Government Archives & Records Administrators (NAGARA), said renting warehouses may seem like a poor investment but may be the most cost-effective way to store state documents.

“What the public may view as a waste of money by renting warehouses, may in fact be a cheaper option when compared to the expense and labor required to digitize everything.” Hadlock said in a written statement.

Hadlock noted that states such as Tennessee and Ohio take an approach similar to Illinois’.

From a federal government standpoint, Hadlock said retaining temporary records in the format in which they were created is generally cheaper than the cost of moving them to another format. He also said there would be little value in scanning records that only had to be retained for a short period of time.

-- Contact Brian Robbins: 782-3095, brian.robbins@sj-r.com, twitter.com/brianrobbins9.

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State warehouses in Illinois

Costs of warehouse annually, according the Comptroller’s Office