Public access at a keystroke

When Edisto Beach leaders want to know how many times the Town Council has discussed dogs on the beach, the town clerk simply types a few keywords into the computer system and pulls up agendas, minutes, resolutions and ordinances.

It's a simple process to find information. But it wasn't always that way.

Edisto Beach, like many other towns and cities around the state, has moved to a digitized system of record keeping. That means taking hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper — everything from city council minutes to proclamations to meeting agendas — scanning them into a computer and filing them in a way that they are easily accessible. The result is less space needed to house boxes of files, an increase in the public's access to records and an improvement in government transparency.

Typically, local governments decide to digitize records for three reasons: cost savings, security and ease of access, said Bryan Collars, electronic records supervisor with the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

Efficient retrieval
"Cost savings can happen at multiple levels, but the one with the most impact is the storage of records. Digitization allows the records creator the opportunity to destroy bulky, space-consuming originals," Collars said. "Additional cost savings may occur in retrieval times for the digital record and savings in staff costs."

Still, Collars said it is important to remember that public records may only be destroyed by following a records retention schedule approved by the state's archives and history department.

Digitization can also improve security. "A digitized record cannot simply be picked up and carried out of the local courthouse or county office. One must be careful to ensure that digitized records are adequately backed up, so if the distribution copy becomes corrupted, another digital copy is readily available to replace it," he said.

Finally, when properly indexed, digitized records accessible through a website are available for public view at any time.

"No longer is the public denied access to a public record because the courthouse is closed or it's a holiday," Collars said. "Digitized records don't take time off."

For Deborah Hargis, the Edisto Beach town clerk who worked to digitize records as her capstone project for certification as a municipal clerk, the new process is extremely helpful — especially to office staff who no longer have to wade through boxes of records searching for a specific paper document.

Edisto Beach contracted with a national firm to scan and organize documents in an electronic format in November 2013. "They did all the scanning and indexing of documents prior to then," she said. "Now I'm in charge of getting it into it the system." By June 2014, there was a dedicated server at Edisto Beach and on-site training began a few months later.

The town had two goals: Reduce the amount of space for paper and make records accessible.

Hargis started with records that went back to the town's incorporation in 1972, including agendas and minutes of meetings, along with ordinances and resolutions. It was a lot of paper. She estimates about 30 banker's boxes crammed full of paper — more than 135,000 sheets — were converted to digital records.

Hargis said she scans current documents for about an hour each week to stay up to date on the process. The cost to maintain the site and house the electronic records is about $2,000 each month. Now, records are available to anyone who logs on to the town's website.

Improving transparency
Clerks agree that, along with helping city staff do its job, the digitization process improves government transparency by allowing the public to monitor and understand the activities of their local governments.

"It helps keep a good record of everything that has happened so that the institutional memory isn't just with people who have been there a while. It's recorded digitally for even the newest members of the team to read. It's harder to say records were lost if they are kept in a digital file," said Shelly Spivey, who worked on the digitization of records when she was the municipal clerk for the City of Landrum and has since moved to the same position in the City of Woodruff.

Spivey participated in a similar capstone project to digitize minutes, resolutions and ordinances going back to the 1990s. As the project started, the city already had a scanner/printer/copier in use and plenty of cloud backup. The base cost could be as little as a scanner and an external drive, she said. After she completed her capstone project, the city purchased software to scan documents into digital archives.

"I spent easily over 80 hours across several weeks on this project," Spivey said. "The types of binders they used in the earlier days made pulling documents out for scanning much more labor intensive. Some of the documents were 'onion skin' paper and very fragile."

Plan for access
Her advice for other cities undertaking a digitization project?

"Expect it to take longer than anticipated, and plan for additional time beyond scanning," Spivey said.

"This is a daunting project, and breaking it up into smaller bits helps keep it from feeling overwhelming. Do a year of minutes or five at a time. Start scanning in everything new you plan to keep right away. Plan a filing system that makes sense for your city and that someone will be able to make sense of in 10 years. Thinking ahead as you look back is very important as you archive because it helps you plan for how these records will be accessed and used as you prepare them for scanning."