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Buried in paper records, Napa County is going digital

Buried in paper records, Napa County is going digital


About 30 million pieces of paper, all official Napa County documents, are stored in 15,000 cardboard boxes stacked inside an industrial park warehouse.

The scene looks like a miniature version of the sprawling storage facility shown at the end of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” This is the place where outdated county documents go to die, be they county correspondence, criminal justice case files, planning documents or mental and public health files.

It’s a lingering death. Though inactive, state law requires these documents be kept for varying lengths of time, perhaps as long as 10 years. They are retained in case of audits, lawsuits and other “just-in-case” needs.

Napa County sees a better, high-tech way of doing business.

The county intends to replace much of this warehouse space with a virtual warehouse, a 21st-century archive without walls or roof. It wants to digitize its records at a cost of more than $900,000, with Planning, Building and Environmental Services records coming first.

Scanning the voluminous amounts of paper into electronic format could take three years. Even then, the record center will hold onto the original copies of historical documents in its care, such as Board of Supervisors minutes from the 19th century.

“We’ll never get rid of all the paper,” county Chief Information Officer Jon Gjestvang said as he walked amid the rows of boxed documents extending some 15 feet high. “The intention of digitization is to reduce our footprint.”

The timing is right.

Napa County pays about $107,000 annually to lease 7,624 square feet of warehouse space to store those 30 million pages of paper documents. But the warehouse owner has expressed interest in using the space for other purposes at some point, a county report said.

County officials hope to cut paper storage by about two-thirds. That could save money on future leases, construction and relocation costs.

California requires communities ditching paper copies of official documents for electronic ones to use what it calls a “trusted system.” Among other things, the system must maintain at least two separate copies of an electronic record and stand up to an audit that ensures documents can’t be altered.

Electronic documents with personal information, such as public health client forms, will be available only to authorized county officials. Others documents, such as planning papers, will be available online to the world at large.

Besides reducing its existing paper load, the county wants to create less paper in the first place. Online county application forms for various county services can help accomplish this goal.

On a recent day at the records center, a batch of papers reached their storage expiration dates. A company shredded papers kept in 240 cardboard boxes as county officials watched.

“We just had a purge,” county Technology Architect Andy Szmidt said.

With an electronic storage center, the county will purge records in a different way. The county will destroy them by the gigabytes instead of by the paper pages.

Some documents are too valuable to purge. They are even too valuable to exist solely amid the electronic ether of a virtual world.

Among the real-world, you-can-touch-them pages that will remain in the archives are those historical, 19th century, hand-written Board of Supervisors meeting minutes.

“Stuff like that you wouldn’t destroy,” Gjestvang said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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