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The Best Practices for Archiving Documents

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski

Document archiving helps you safely store important information while clearing out clutter from your office. Here's how to implement an archiving system.

Document archiving is the practice of storing static documents in a safe physical or digital space, and it is an important aspect of any document management system (DMS). Businesses in different industries and fields practice document archiving, particularly those that must keep records and files that are no longer in active use. 

What is document archiving?

Document archiving is the practice of moving documents that are no longer regularly used, but still need to be kept, into storage.

Documents may be stored for a number of reasons, including:

  • Legal requirements
  • Business records
  • Tax records
  • Freeing up space

The documents can be physical or digital, though many businesses are making the switch from paper to digital document management and archiving to reduce physical storage space and ease day-to-day operations. Data archiving is a crucial part of any business, enabling you to retain important documents and categorize them in a way that makes it easy for you to find them should you need them in the future.

It is important to note the difference between backup data and archived data. Backup data is a temporary means of recovery for documents that are actively used. Conversely, archived data comprises documents that you or your employees don't use actively (nor will in the foreseeable future), but you still need to keep on hand.

Ways to archive documents

There are multiple methods to archive documents, each with its own pros and cons. We can compare the three most common methods to establish what can be gained or lost from choosing any one of them. (You don't have to choose just one method; multiple archives and diversification are common.)

Paper storage

The oldest method is, of course, traditional paper storage – filing cabinets full of documents or copies. This is one of the safest archive methods in a digital world: Paper storage cannot be hacked, and it is incredibly difficult to edit physically archived information without leaving a trace.

The main drawback of paper storage is that it is cumbersome and slow to use. A computer can pull up digital documents, search their contents, and sort and catalog information in seconds. Finding the same information with paper documents can take hours – even days in some cases. Paper adds security but sacrifices efficiency.

Digital archives

Digital storage is probably the most common method of archive today. You have digital copies of all of your documents, and those digital files can be stored on hard drives, local servers, cloud resources or any other computer system. Digital archives are extremely accessible and efficient. These are the reasons they were invented.

The downside to digital archives is that they can be hacked or breached. Also, if they aren't sufficiently duplicated on multiple devices, they can be lost in a single incident.

Scan on demand

Another common storage method is scan on demand. It serves as a hybrid between digital and paper archiving. Scan on demand is a service that stores your information as paper documents but will also scan them and send them as digital documents. You get the reliability and security of paper documents with the convenience of digitization. Of course, having both paper and digital records means dealing with the downsides of both. Scan on demand is nowhere near as fast as digital archives, and it introduces digital security risks to your paper archives.

What is document management?

Document archiving is part of document management, which is an organized approach to filing and storing documents. A DMS is software that captures, stores, files and distributes documents to members of your organization.


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How document archiving benefits your business

Electronic archiving is important for many reasons. First and foremost, it enables you to organize important files and provides an easy way for those files to be found again if they are ever needed.

Your business will produce a lot of data and individual documents, no matter what industry you're in, and it's your responsibility as a small business owner to make sure that data is stored in a way that allows it to be utilized effectively.

Document archiving can benefit your business in several ways:

  • It frees up office and storage space. If your business uses physical document management, chances are good that much of your office space is taken up by rows of storage boxes or filing cabinets full of documents and papers that take hours to sift through. The use of an archiving system can free up this space, though. Or, if you already use a digital system, archiving can clear storage space for active documents.

  • It provides security. Many companies deal with documents that need to be kept secure, particularly industries such as healthcare, legal or finance. Document archiving and DMS solutions often have security measures built in that manage user access, track edits, and control passwords.

  • Documents are protected from physical hazards. Boxes of physical documents are particularly susceptible to physical disasters or hazards such as fire, floods or theft. Archiving your documents digitally or in the cloud provides reassurance that your files and documents are safe no matter what.

  • It increases efficiency for your business. The world is increasingly going digital, and it is getting harder for businesses that still use analog systems to keep up with demand. Using a digital archiving system can improve your workflow by allowing you and your employees to call up any document with just a few clicks, eliminating the need to sort through box after box.

  • It aids compliance. For businesses in the legal, medical, or financial industries, there are often strict regulations regarding how clients' data and information is stored, which can be difficult to comply with when you mainly handle and store paper copies. Digital archiving systems often come with automated compliance measures to help your business documents satisfy regulations.

How to implement document archiving in your small business

Document archiving and records management are important, and as such, are not a quick to-do. You must devote time and resources, and commit to doing it right to get maximum benefits.

There are steps you can follow to make the process as painless as possible with minimal downtime.

1. Assess your current system.

First, look at your current document management system. Is there a formal system in place or are documents handled ad hoc? Look at how each document is produced, received, processed, stored and deleted. Note what works well and what doesn't.

Next, you will need to take inventory of your existing documents to determine how much space you need (physically and digitally). You also need to categorize your inventory by function, such as financial, personnel, budgets, etc.

2. Identify your goals.

Your next step is to decide what you want your system to do for you. Are you looking to lower costs? Increase productivity? Implement a system that is easier to use? Automate compliance measures?

List your goals in order of priority. You should also determine who on your team will be responsible for overseeing and running this new system, and include them in your planning.

3. Determine a retention schedule.

A retention schedule governs how long you must keep a document. Certain documents have externally regulated retention schedules, others go by best practice, so it is important that you make this a key part of your archiving system. For example, you must keep permanent records of financial reports or property deeds, while all tax and IRS-related documents must be kept for at least seven years.

If you are concerned about liability in disposing of certain documents, you can hire a National Association of Information Destruction vendor for secure transport and destruction of sensitive documents.

4. Digitize all paper documents.

This may be time-consuming and tedious, but converting your paper documents into digital files will pay off in the long run. This can help you cut costs and save on physical storage space while improving ease of access to important documents. You can continue to keep hard copies of certain documents, but digitize them, too, to be safe.

To digitize paper documents, you can use the scanner included with your printer or use a mobile app to scan. The easiest way to ensure universal access to your archived documents is by scanning them as PDF files.

5. Choose a storage provider.

While you can store files yourself on your company computers if you are a very small business, it is often in your best interests to find a provider who will store them for you. Using a document management service that offers document archiving provides many features, including extra security, and they can help with setup and troubleshooting when you need it.

6. Evaluate processes and storage.

Document archiving is an active, ongoing process that requires constant attention to ensure the process is working as it should. Make it part of your company policy that all document management and archiving procedures are reviewed annually, and make any necessary adjustments.

Be sure that your employees are clear on the process from beginning to end by making it part of your onboarding process, and offer an annual training refresher for employees who want it.

You should also periodically review archived material to ensure that the information is secure and accessible, and you also want to review who does – and does not – have access to these documents.

Document archiving best practices

Document archiving and management is an ever-evolving process that requires constant monitoring and adjustments. Make your document archive the best it can be with these bpractices.

1. Be knowledgeable about record retention requirements.

Understand the rules governing how long each and every type of document should be kept. The general rule of thumb, excluding deeds, certain financial records, and tax documents is 10 years, but many industries and organizations have specific rules and regulations.

2. Determine what constitutes a business record.

Every business is different; a document that is essential for one business to archive may not be so important for your company. Define early on what is a business record (and how you want it kept), and make sure that distinction is clear to your employees.

3. Have a clear storage system.

After you have determined which records will be kept, carefully come up with a system of how they will be kept. You can categorize documents by type, function, team or client, and name the files accordingly. Whatever you decide, add it to your company's list of policies, and make sure it is implemented company-wide.

4. Decide on your document retention policies.

Your employees will have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of documents during their time with your company. It is up to you to control who sees or edits which documents and how long each employee should have access to those files.

Policies must be determined based on your company's unique uses and needs, but these are some common policies related to document management and archiving:

  • Email retention
  • Bring your own device
  • Mobile device management

5. Consider your security needs.

The first step in securely archiving files is to learn compliance. Every industry has standards, which are often set by government regulations. You must know these regulations and follow them to avoid major problems.

When you do know the requirements, you'll want to audit your file security to look for flaws and sources of noncompliance. You can outsource your archive security audits to professional groups, which is often a good way to pinpoint blind spots that are easy to miss with internal audits.

How to decide which files to archive

While you should use your own discretion to determine which files need to be archived, you can follow these two rules of thumb to guide your decisions:

  • Archive anything that you are required to, either legally or by industry-specific regulations, and keep those files on record for as long as the regulations dictate.

  • Keep anything vital to the creation, perpetuation, and life of your business, such as property deeds, copies of licenses, employee tax and employment forms, and business tax records.
Image Credit: demaerre / Getty Images
Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski Staff
Kiely Kuligowski is a and Business News Daily writer and has written more than 200 B2B-related articles on topics designed to help small businesses market and grow their companies. Kiely spent hundreds of hours researching, analyzing and writing about the best marketing services for small businesses, including email marketing and text message marketing software. Additionally, Kiely writes on topics that help small business owners and entrepreneurs boost their social media engagement on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.