What is the RIGHT Price for Records Digitization?

At a time when it is relatively easy to compare prices on-line for commodity purchases – just go to Amazon and you can find the lowest price for just about any standard item – it is frustrating to compare features for complicated purchases to determine the “right” price. The price to value equation gets even more complicated when some or all of a purchase can be made as an ongoing set of services rather than as a one-off capital expense. In this article we will discuss the right-price for records digitization with some help from an automobile purchase illustration. The price for records digitization can very in a similar way.

For example, what is the “right” price for a car?

how is a car purchase like records digitization price comparisons?My personal preference is for a vehicle with four wheels with good gas mileage and low upkeep, that can get me from point A to point B, requires a minimum of personal interaction to purchase (no haggling), and that I can pay for upfront with cash from our savings account. I don’t care for flash. As a result, my last two cars have been a 2008 Scion xD and a 2012 Ford Focus. I paid less than $13,000 for each of these cars. Snicker if you like, but that’s the “right” price for me. BTW, I also drive a manual 5-speed, which is the source of even more potential laughing.

I have friends who think this is nuts. A car is much more for them than a way to get from Point A to Point B. The actual price of a car ($40,000, $50,000, $60,000 — it makes my head spin) matters less than the amount they need to pay monthly on a 7-year car loan (when did car loans become mini-mortgages?) or a 3-year lease.

So the “right” price for a car depends on exactly what a car represents to the purchaser, how a car’s features and price and capabilities map to those expectations, and whether you want to buy up front or pay over time.

So, too, with digitization projects. Over the past several years, advancements in data capture technologies, stricter records management requirements and the M-19-21 goal of achieving the coveted “paperless office” have driven agencies to seek more efficient ways of handling their information.

The good news is that from a day-forward perspective, many agencies have deployed modern content and records management systems. With enough user education and planning these agencies can keep digital information in digital form, creating a foundation for compliance with the NARA records management deadlines in M-19-21. In many agencies there are some truly exciting things going on — efforts to use the M-19-21 deadlines as a vehicle to rethink and modernize their information infrastructures. These records and content management systems are not without a lot of complexity (it’s not easy to do this properly), but it’s at least a starting place.

The bad news is that digital records are only part of the M-19-21 compliance equation. The elephant in the room is the continued pervasiveness of paper. There are many reasons for the continued pervasiveness of paper. Some are cultural; people just don’t like to change. Some are historical; when paper records were created many years ago, no one thought that they would someday need to be digitized. Some are financial; for many organizations, the M-19-21 requirements are just another unfunded mandate. Some reasons center on the lack of the appropriate skills to address the problem at large scale.

But the reality is that many government agencies have a mind-boggling number of boxes of permanent and non-permanent records in paper form that need to be either immediately transferred to a Federal Records Center or digitized before the 12-31-22 M-19-21 deadline. Over many years of talking to user organizations about their scanning, conversion, and digitization projects, one thing is clear to me – there is a lot of confusion about the “right” price for records digitization.

In determining the “right” price for a back-file digitization project, let me be upfront about my bias. A typical file box contains 2,500 pages. A typical agency or department has hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of these boxes. To try to digitize this accumulated history with internal resources while simultaneously future-proofing new systems is a recipe for disaster, especially during the COVID 19 and Federal “footprint” downsizing initiative. Speed is key, as is getting rid of agency operated paper storage facilities, reducing federal footprint, digitizing records and becoming M-19-21 compliant.

Agencies should focus precious internal IT resources on the future and on making new systems automate the day-forward task of records management. Against this daunting challenge, if ever there was a task that calls for outsourcing, it’s back-file scanning, capture, and digitization at scale.

But how much should you pay for this task? I have seen prices quoted from 5 cents to 30 cents per page, and everything in between. What is the “right” price?

Like the “right” price for a car, the “right” price for Records Digitization (capture, scanning, and digitization) needs to match against the requirements of the task. My recommendation is to start with the requirements laid out by NARA. The Federal Records Management Council (FRMC) White Paper on Digitization Cost Benefit Analysis fortunately lays out exactly what agencies should be trying to buy. Carry this list into any meeting that you have with a digitization outsourcer.

  1. Can the vendor support all stages of the digitization process from initial planning through implementation?
  2. Has the vendor adequately detailed the workflows within their solution?
  3. What portions of the vendor’s solution are outsourced?
  4. What security and chain-of-custody controls does the vendor have in place regarding transportation of files and external storage devices?
  5. Does the vendor have a national footprint to service records located across the country?
  6. What chain-of-custody controls does the vendor implement to protect records throughout the digitization process, starting from pick-up/handling of physical records through scanning and eventual return to the agency or final disposition?
  7. Does the vendor offer document preparation, compliant storage, secured transportation and/or destruction services to appropriately handle the physical source materials?
  8. How does the vendor track and monitor records as they progress through the digitization process?
  9. What steps does the vendor take to ensure accuracy and quality assurance metrics meet the customer’s needs?
  10. What scanning features/capabilities does the vendor provide (e.g., high resolution, OCR, wide-format document, book scanning, fragile/historical records)?
  11. Does the vendor provide digitization services for other record formats (e.g., microfilm, microfiche)?
  12. What IT compliance requirements or certification does the vendor meet?
  13. Can the vendor provide past performance references for successfully completed digitization projects of similar size and scale?

(Just FYI, take a look at THIS LINK to get a sense of how QAI believes they align against the NARA requirements.)

What should you pay in order to meet these kinds of requirements? For the sake of simplicity, let’s confine the conversation to offsite digitization projects. If you settle for vendors promising a less than 10 cents per page price, you will likely regret your decision because you won’t get full answers to the 13 questions above. If you somehow agree to a 30 cents per page price tag, you will likely be over-buying (unless the documents are particularly problematic).

There are multiple factors that can impact the price for records digitization projects. Some things to consider are:

  • the age, condition, and quality of the material to be digitized
  • the volume of material to be processed
  • the amount of document prep and re-prep needed
  • the number of indexes and where they can be found in the material
  • the time frame to complete the project
  • whether the project will be done on-site or off-site or a hybrid
  • Types of media other than paper (microfilm, microfiche, CD’s VHS, audio tapes, bound books, magazines, blueprints)

Just as a test drive is key to validating your car buying choices, an upfront assessment of your document collection(s), by a qualified conversion vendor, is key to confirming your digitization pricing/costing assumptions.

My conclusion: There will be differences from project to project and agency to agency, but my take is if your conversations with digitization partners are in the ballpark of 13-22 cents per page, you are probably in the right ballpark. But this only applies to off-site scanning, scanning on-site at a customers location is an entirely different discussion.

Now if we can only get fans back into the ballparks. But that’s a story for another day.

#NARACompliance #M-19-21