Nov 12, 2021

(+) Turn any Smartphone into a Scanner and Document Management System with OCR Capabilities

The following is a Plus Edition article, written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Let’s say you are at a county courthouse looking at old land records, and you find what you have been looking for: the transcription of your ancestor’s deed showing his purchase of property. Of course, you need a copy; but the only available copy machine doesn’t handle oversized documents. Even more important, you always prefer a digital image whenever possible as it is easier to store, copy, and include in your reports. However, there is no scanner available. What to do?

Use your cell phone’s camera!

Most modern-day cell phones include cameras of 5 megapixels resolution or more. In fact, the current iPhone includes an 12-megapixel camera while most of today’s Android cameras include the same or even higher resolution. (Beware of cameras claiming 20 or more megapixels. Those claims are technically correct, but those cameras take pictures that are usually “digitally enhanced” with the result being an 8- or 12-megapixel image.)

A 12-megapixel image—assuming it was created by properly-focused lenses and a high-quality sensor—will produce a BETTER image than does the typical photocopy machine. Cameras also easily handle oversized documents. Finally, a digital image can easily be saved anywhere, copied, sent by email, or used in almost any imaginable manner. You won’t be required to insert quarters into a machine, either.

To be sure, my favorite method of digitizing paper is to use the desktop scanner I have at home. However, that isn’t very useful when I am someplace else.

One drawback of the tablet computer and stage stand is that I do not carry them with me everywhere. If I find myself in need of a digital copy at other times, I revert to my second-favorite method: use my cell phone’s camera.

With appropriate software installed, a smartphone becomes a pocket photocopier and scanner. Of course, you can always take a picture of any document at any time without using any extra software. However, if you take hundreds or even thousands of such pictures, you may find some difficulty when searching for the one image you need months later. Use of a document management program will make those images more useful and easier to find and retrieve.

I digitize most everything worth keeping. I digitize copies of ancestors’ deeds, my insurance papers, prescriptions, bills, vegan recipes, magazine articles, motor vehicle registrations, my driver’s license, my passport, receipts for income tax purposes, receipts from the automobile’s last oil change, and anything else that I wish to keep. I typically use my Android camera several times a day to digitize various pieces of paper. Once digitized, I throw away about 99.9% of the paper. I store all my documents in the cloud as well as copies on the desktop and laptop computers. In addition, I can quickly retrieve any document at any time, even on my cell phone, wherever I am, as long as I have a decent cell phone signal. That can be handy when at the doctor’s office, the motor vehicle department, or most anyplace else.

At this time I have digitized more than 3,000 documents, and all of them are available to me within seconds as long as I have my cell phone with me. I would hate to travel with all those documents on paper as the briefcase would be very heavy! Using digitized documents is faster and easier than using paper. Using proper backup techniques, digitized images also will last much longer than paper copies. That is especially true of those cash register receipts that seem to start fading away within weeks after being printed. Electronic images of the same documents, however, can remain readable for centuries. Assuming you have multiple digital copies stored in multiple locations, you no longer have to worry about fading ink, fire, flood, burst water pipes, mold, mildew, rodent damage, or any of the other things that easily destroy paper.

As soon as you start using a cell phone camera regularly to digitize documents, you will run into a document management issue: how do you quickly and easily find the one document you seek from the thousands you have stored?

In fact, there are dozens of document management programs to choose from for Windows, Macintosh, Android, iOS, Linux, Chrome, and probably some other operating systems. Prices vary from free to thousands of dollars for some of the document management programs aimed for corporate use. It is impossible to define any one product as “the best one” for all genealogists. However, once you have your needs defined, you typically can narrow the choices to a handful.

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