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Cost-benefit analyses are frequently a cure for insomnia – read a page or two and you’re fast asleep. But in fact, we’re constantly performing these analyses in everyday decision-making. At this very moment you might be considering the deliciousness of a pumpkin cranberry muffin vs. an extra hour on the elliptical.

As everyone who has ever tried to lose a few pounds will testify, enthusiasm can cloud a cost-benefit analysis. (That yummy muffin can be worked off in only 15 minutes, right?) For the past few years, the federal government has been quite enthusiastic about switching from paper documents to digital records. Now at least one agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is taking a strictly impartial look at the costs and the benefits of their transition to digital documents.

As the nation’s recordkeeper, NARA is in charge of storing a wide range of documents, everything from the Declaration of Independence to historical photographs, correspondence, and even a few designs for flying saucers. For many years the agency maintained vast “filing farms” where all these paper documents were stored and retrieved as needed.

The advent of email spurred the development of e-document archives and document conversion policies, with NARA leading the way as the federal government’s document storage experts. Now NARA is reviewing the costs and benefits of digital document storage, and guiding other agencies in their own document conversions and management. In an interview by, Lisa Haralumpus, NARA’s director of records management and outreach, reports that transitioning to digital documents doesn’t necessarily save money in direct costs, but there are significant indirect cost savings to be found.

For their fellow agencies, the National Archives has devised a handy digital conversion cost-benefit analysis guide that covers recurring costs such as IT staff and software costs, and non-recurring costs like hardware purchases and consultant services. Benefits include the value of document authenticity, speed of retrieval, and decreased physical storage costs. Haralumpus also recommends that agencies look for ways to share storage services to lower their costs even further.

It’s worth mentioning that this cost-benefit analysis guide isn’t only for governmental agencies. It can just as easily be applied to non-governmental organizations looking for ways to lower their document management and storage costs. But for public sector and private sector alike, a solid cost-benefit analysis is the start of the decision-making process, whether you’re deciding on document conversion or muffins.


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