Paperless Sounds Good and Is Almost Possible

Fujitsu ScanSnap S510

Fujitsu ScanSnap S510

For about a year now I’ve been using a remarkable tool for paperless research, writing, record storage and dog grooming (well, maybe not dog grooming). It’s the Fujitsu ScanSnap S510. And I like it for lots of reasons that may strike a chord with you.

  • It’s compact, with a footprint of 5.5″ x 11.5″ and a height of about 7″, until the feeder tray is opened (at which point it grows about 4 inches taller).
  • It plugs into the USB port on my laptop (or USB hub connected to my laptop), allowing all scans to slip easily into electronic nirvana.
  • It feeds standard-size documents and scans both sides on one pass. This is not a flatbed scanner. You load the document into it the same way you do with a FAX machine. A multi-page document can be loaded all at once and scanned as a single file.
  • The software that comes with the S510 allows me to save my scanned files as PDF documents.
  • It plays nicely with Apple.
  • It replaces my FAX machine because I can now scan any document, save it as a PDF (or other) file, and send it as an attachment by email. So it saves space in my office by performing multiple functions and replacing other single-function devices.

I’ve used the ScanSnap S510 to:

  • return documents with my signature;
  • retain copies of receipts and other documents for tax purposes;
  • save typed manuscripts and student papers that include detailed comments I’ve written in margins;
  • store photocopied material on my computer;
  • prepare for writing and research to do while traveling;
  • streamline paper files (and piles).

Signed Documents

Because my work involves payment for speaking engagements and author consulting, I often have to complete and sign documents that are then filed with the IRS by the individual or agency paying for the service. The forms can be sent to me for my signature, then signed, scanned and returned to the sender. The sender has what he needs for his records, and I have a copy in my electronic files.

Copies of all writing contracts can now be kept on my laptop. This is helpful when I need to refer to these documents to recall terms of publication years after a book or article has been published.

Tax Returns

Now I can scan all paperwork needed to complete my tax return each year: receipts, IRS forms, templates used by my tax accountant, even copies of all past returns.

My setup for 2009 begins with a folder on my computer labeled “2009 Taxes.” This folder is subdivided with folders for different kinds of deductible expenses. Individual receipts are scanned, labeled, and filed into these folders. When it’s time to prepare my return for 2009, I just pull everything from these virtual folders. (My tax accountant tells me that most docs that would be needed for an audit can be submitted to the IRS electronically. If they’re stored that way from the outset, it’s ready to go—just in case.)

Marked Manuscripts and Student Papers

I often read manuscripts for other writers and write comments in the margins. Sometimes this is at the request of a publisher. Other times it’s for the author. With the ScanSnap S510 feed scanner, I can keep copies of anything that might be useful to me later. I feel more comfortable writing detailed comments knowing that the ideas I share are permanently captured for future reference.

I find this also works well when marking papers for students. For smaller classes I have more time for more detailed evaluation. I can scan papers that I load up with comments. That way, I have a permanent record of the basis for any grade I assign, and whatever remarks I’ve made in the margins that might be useful in my teaching and other work. Sometimes I scan only select pages.

No More Photocopies

While I haven’t completely eliminated photocopies, I have streamlined my files with electronic versions of photocopied material using the scanner. This makes it easier to find the material when I need it, and have it close to hand rather than at the bottom of some pile or in a file cabinet. When scanning a document, I can assign key words to facilitate searches for that document on my computer. (This is important when scanning and filing handwritten documents.)

Research and Writing on the Road

I’ve found a number of ways to minimize the ordeal of traveling while keeping up with my research and writing. One is to carry fewer books. With my Kindle I can carry a whole library within the compass of a single slender and light-weight volume. My iPhone 3G is equipped to do internet research and gives me access to several specialized applications for the iPhone that help with productivity. With the ScanSnap 510 I’m able to scan papers and documents needed to carry on my research while on the road. Rather than pack a hard copy of some journal article I plan to study, I can now scan the article into my laptop. This takes no more than a few seconds.

From Piling to Filing

The sheer volume of papers I manage for speaking and writing projects can be overwhelming. Paper files are large and unwieldy. With this scanner I can quickly get stacks of paper off my desk (and floor) and into a codifed electronic form. I find that this step of scanning material I may want for future reference helps me winnow the chaff and store only what is truly worthwhile.

For effective winnowing, I often ask myself, “If I trash this item, and I need it later, will I be able to get my hands on it without actually having it take up space in my own files?” It’s amazing how often the answer is yes. (And I usually know the answer sooner than it would take me to utter the question out loud.) I can always create a note for abandoned items using utility software for this purpose. Or I can scan a handwritten note about items I’m tossing, and keep the note where I’ll find it later if needed. The note will lead me to the original material.

Clearing the Decks

One of the best uses of the S510 I’ve found is to scan all of my handwritten pages of “To Do” lists and miscellaneous—and yes, random—ideas. My habit of writing things down quickly leads to piles of handwritten notes. Some pages are dedicated to special topics or projects. Others are simply lists of things to do. And some are a hodge-podge of unrelated items that have fallen onto the page in a meandering stream of consciousness. Over time they pile up. And knowing where to file them has always been a conundrum. Not anymore. The least I can do is get them off my desk and into an electronic format, filed away in a folder of dated items of that sort. I may never return to them, but I know where they are. So this is now something I do periodically when the stack obstructs my vision.

Note: This hack works well in combination with writing, research, productivity, and database software I use: Things, Scrivener, MacJournal, and OmniOutliner. PDF documents can be dropped into files created with these applications. That goes for PDF documents produced using the ScanSnap S510.

Things 1 Icon







Share your ideas about how you streamline productivity, or leave a brief review of the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

2 Responses to Paperless Sounds Good and Is Almost Possible

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Beth,

    My initial response to your five questions:

    (1) For most of my scanning, ScanSnap saves what is scanned (which is usually text, in my case) in PDF format. (This is probably the format used for journal articles you download, mentioned in your #2.) There are other file options than this with ScanSnap. But even when scanning to PDF format the resolution is great, and that includes images that are on the pages to be scanned. I don’t use OCR, but that’s because I haven’t felt the need, or the inclination to investigate the options. Have you had good luck with OCR? I believe that Adobe Acrobat has been adding features to their software for PDF files, making searches within documents possible (not sure about that), and permitting notes to be made on PDF files. One alternative to OCR, which is probably most useful for searches within documents, is to use tags for individual PDF files. That’s my practice lately.

    (2) True. I have convenient and no-cost access to quite a lot of research material through my university library and directly online. But I can’t get everything that way. Some journals just don’t play well with online subscription services. Also, I have material in my files that can be scanned as easily as locating them online would be (if they could even be found). And if I’ve read and marked a hard copy of a journal article, then I want that in my files, rather than a fresh clean copy downloaded from the net.

    (3) I always prefer reading paper copy. I sit in front of a computer too much of the time. It ties me to my desk when I could be sitting by a pool in bright sunlight somewhere. I don’t seem to experience as much of the physical stress many people report as a result of their looking at a lighted screen all day. But there is a strain. Then there’s the fact that hard copy is easier to mark, and a more versatile marking system is available when oing it by hand.

    (4) My “backup” is a hard disk in my study at home. Since this is where I do most work on my laptop, this isn’t an off-site backup system. I do have the option of keeping a backup copy in my university office. I often think of that, but haven’t one it. I’m reluctant to subscribe to an online service, but that’s because I’d rather not pay for it. And to be honest, if I lost all my research files, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Life would go on. I’d continue with the same projects. It might even be a blessing in some ways.

    (5) Books. What you do with them depends on whether you plan to keep them. I’ve been thinking very hard lately about what to do about the excess of books I have (in the thousands). Yesterday I wrote out some ideas I have about this that I think will work for me. Maybe I’ll blog the topic in a separate post. In short, I think despining some books is the way to go. A loose leaf book may be a welcome gift for someone you know (someone who doesn’t have such a load of books, maybe), so the book need not be permanently out of commission. This morning I was thinking that, for many of my books, it would be satisfactory to keep only some sections. For example, I was reading a collection of short stories by Agatha Christie. I own the book, which comes to nearly 700 pages and is two inches thick. The physical appearance of the book is nothing special; it’s just paperback. I’m not attached to it, except for passages that I’ve marked (I enjoy Christie’s word-play) and stories I would be inclined to read again. Whatever I paid for the book is returned in the degree of enjoyment I get from reading it. The value would be greater, but only to someone else, if the book was kept intact. But it’s my book and I may just decide to trim the stories out that I like best and do away with the remainder. Truth be told, most of the stories can probably be found on the internet. But the principle holds for any book, which might not be have a presence online. Good candidates for this sort of rough treatment are books of essays, speeches, chapters that stand on their own, and so forth. But I have favorite passages from monographs and would return to them without ever reading the whole again.

    We live in a different era. We have so much more stuff to manage. So I’ve convinced myself that I need a new set of principles, new habits of mind, to guide my working habits and my arrangement of books and papers. Old-fashioned ways are preferable in many respects. But in some ways they are more burdensome than they once were. I’m growing happier with a sort of compromise, treating my reading material on a case-by-case basis.


  2. bethyada says:

    This is interesting and worth further consideration. It raises some further questions.

    1. Presumably these are saved as pictures. Is there optical character recognition and do you use this and how good is it?

    2. Why are you scanning in journal articles? surely you can download the articles from the publishers website (via your university). The files will be text and much smaller. This is my method and I download up to 20 articles per week (at a guess).

    3. Do you like to read off paper at times. I probably read more off a screen than off paper, but still read paper. And long texts like books I prefer paper.

    4. For another post, but what is your backup. You presumably need good, reliable offsite backup for this.

    5. What do you do with bound items, like books. I would not be in favour of despining mine!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: