Document storage is a key part of any organization’s business solutions, whether or not its business model is information-based. Deciding where or how to store your documents might be a simple, one-afternoon fix if you’re a small or new company, but it can be a headache for any sizeable organization unless appropriately managed. 

We decided to write a guide to the various document storage solutions available, to hopefully make it easier to choose the best way to store your important documents. However, before we can review your options, we must know what to look for.

What does good document storage require?

There are two angles to “good” document storage to consider: what is most advantageous for your operation, and what is in line with the legislation to which you must comply. Of course, this distinction, though helpful, is arbitrary, as complying with legislation is almost always better for your operation than risking costly fines or prosecution.

Operational Considerations

The operational aspects are pretty straightforward. You have and use documents (be they physical, paper documents, or digital files of some kind) because the information they contain is useful. You keep them in storage because that useful information will be helpful again in the future. Thus, good storage needs to have enough capacity to hold everything you want to hold onto, and it needs to be as accessible as possible so that you can access that information when you need it, not after. Keeping your storage organized is a big part of accessibility, as disorganized are hard to find. 

Finally, like with every element of your operation, your storage needs to be cost-effective. Keeping your documents secure and organized is essential, but unless you deal with especially sensitive information, you probably don’t need expensive top-of-the-line security measures. Standard encryption or locks will probably do the job.

How does legislation affect document storage requirements?

Things get a little more complicated, however, when we introduce legislation. As we’ve covered in previous posts, Canadian federal legislation leaves a lot of room for flexible solutions in records management. Rather than try to write rules covering every possible circumstance or situation an organization might be in, the legislation leaves it very much up to you to manage your own records. The only things required of you are that your organization abide by some minimum standards and core principles.

The most critical minimum standards to keep in mind are retention periods. These rules require you to hold onto various business documents for several years after they’re created, even if they’re no longer relevant to your operation. The amount of time you need to keep a record varies between document types, but it is usually a six-year period. However, when that six-year period begins also depends on the type of document, as well as the kind of organization. At most, the period could start as late as 364 days after it was created, so to be careful, it’s best practice to hold onto all of your business documents for at least seven years – eight if you’re extra cautious. (Read more about retention periods here.)

But what counts as a “business document?” If you only have to hold onto a small portion of your documents, retention periods won’t affect your storage needs very much. In reality, however, nearly every piece of information your organization interacts with counts as a business document. Financial documents, transaction records, personnel records, internal memos, official meeting minutes and correspondence; all of these and more need to be retained for various lengths of time. In the context of storage solutions, “good” storage includes high capacity and scalability. 

There are a few exceptions, generally anything especially unimportant (i.e. not legally, operationally, or financially relevant). These are called “transitory records” and can be disposed of whenever you wish. However, given the penalties for non-compliance, and the suspicion that an absent file can raise, it may be better for you to retain mundane documents to prove an absence of suspicious activity. (Read more about records maintenance legislation here.)

One notable exception to this general policy of “keep it all” is personal information (i.e. identifying information about individuals outside of the organization). Many organizations collect personal information in their regular course of business, either to tailor their goods and services to their customers or for targeted advertising. Canadian federal legislation has almost the opposite approach to personal information; the general policy is to get rid of it as soon as possible. According to legislation, you need to have a specific reason for collecting a piece of personal information. Once that purpose has expired, the information should be securely disposed of unless you used that information to make a decision that affects the person to whom it pertains. In that case, the information, and record of the decision made about it, need to be accessible to the individual for long enough that they have a reasonable opportunity to access it and challenge the decision if they so wish. (Read more about personal information legislation here; for more information on records management, check out our blog series: A Guide to Records Management.)

What are your options for document storage?

Option 1: Paper Filing

In general, digital storage is far more efficient, secure, and legally reliable than storing paper documents (if you do it right); plus, it comes with additional benefits like remote access and instant duplication (learn more here). We strongly encourage any organization to digitalize as much of their operation as possible due to the efficiency, security, and accessibility advantages digital systems offer. 

However, some organizations may choose to or have to retain some paper documents. Depending on the number and sensitivity of these physical documents, it may be most cost-effective to store them in filing cabinets or lock boxes at your facility. However, this consumes valuable space in your facility or office that you could better utilize for your core business. Storing all of your paper documents in the office may also be untenable if you have a huge number of files. Various companies offer secure document storage off-site, though their business model may require you to pay them every time you want to access one of your own records. 

Option 2: Digital Storage In-house

Almost every organization doing business in developed societies already uses some amount of digital storage, so this should be familiar territory. If you’re looking to scale up your digital storage capacity in-house or to improve the storage you’ve already got, you’ll need to ensure you have high-quality I.T. professionals on hand to help you set it up and maintain it. To keep your files organized and accessible, you’ll need to think about who in your organization needs access to what and how often, as well as develop an indexing schema that’s intuitive enough to be understood without thorough instruction, yet comprehensive enough to organize everything effectively. 

How secure your digital storage will need to be, depends on how sensitive the information is. An organization of any size needs to protect its financial information, so some extra security measures beyond those built into your software tools are likely warranted. Regular monitoring and maintenance by your I.T. team, strong and frequently rotated passwords, educating your employees about good digital hygiene, and some basic encryption are a few ways you can keep your information safe on internet-connected servers.

Contrary to what some people believe, digital information is far more secure than paper. The common misconception that paper is more secure or reliable than digital is probably a left-over from a time when that was in fact true or based on the intuitive feeling of certainty and solidity that physical documents provide. Either way, so long as you take some common-sense steps to protect your data, modern digital storage options offer reliability and security that intuitive feelings of security can’t compete with in practice. You can’t encrypt a paper file, keep it behind a password, or track who’s seen it with metadata. (Learn more about the security and reliability advantages of paper here).

Option 3: Cloud Storage

Mass-storing your files in a server hundreds or even thousands of miles away was once a pipe dream of computer enthusiasts or the exclusive privilege of major corporations and governments. Now, however, with lightning-fast internet speeds available in most of the developed world, and high-capacity digital storage cheaper and more efficient than ever, storing documents online is an option for anyone. 

Cloud storage comes with a number of benefits over in-house digital storage. For one, you can save space that local storage would’ve used instead. Depending on the size of your organization and its I.T. team, cloud storage is probably also more reliable than in-house storage. Every computer system has issues now and then, but using a cloud storage provider’s servers means outsourcing the monitoring and maintenance to them. 

Companies offering cloud storage services need to maintain reliability and security to sustain their profits, so you can be sure that much of their revenue is being reinvested into industry-leading digital security measures. Cloud storage is also more convenient than in-house digital storage, as you can access your files from any computer, including when you’re out of the office. In fact, this convenience is what made entirely remote business models possible, and was a key part of the resilience of economies around the world during the recent COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The only potential downsides of cloud storage are dependence on internet speeds and dependence on the service provider. Because all of your information is stored off-site, potentially a very far distance away, disruptions to your internet access mean disruptions to your access to your own files. Additionally, if the service provider experiences a technical crisis or severe disruption, you will have to wait until they are able to resume service, and trust that they backed up your files properly.  

But you should consider how likely these problems are. Internet speeds are faster and more reliable than ever before, so unless your organization is based somewhere with poor digital infrastructure, disruptions will be rare and short. Service providers, on the other hand, have huge financial incentives to maintain reliable storage, so they’re likely to take many precautions with your data. 

Additionally, due to the market centralization of the internet (i.e. Anyone from anywhere can access the biggest providers), the mainstream options for cloud storage generate huge amounts of revenue, giving them access to cutting-edge technology and personnel to ensure that they never run into problems that could disrupt services. So not only is the protection of your files their primary business incentive, but they’re also likely to be more able to protect your files than you are. 

Option 4: Air-Gapped Storage

The security options for in-house or cloud storage are typically good enough to cover most organizations’ needs. But what if your information is especially sensitive, or what if your organization is an especially likely target for cybercriminals? The most secure digital storage option is “air-gapped” storage, in which a dedicated server system is completely isolated from the internet. Secure removable storage devices, like external hard drives or thumb drives, are used to ferry files onto and off the isolated server, and only by trusted members of your organization. With no possible way to connect to the internet, there’s zero risk of online cyber threats, giving you the maximum possible peace of mind about the files you keep there.

Air-gapped storage is ideal for archiving old records that you don’t need to move often, and that you need to keep as secure as possible. It is not the best option, however, for any files that you need to share or use often (unless you’re okay with using the files on a computer which is also disconnected from the internet). 

Learn more about air-gapped servers and digital information security here.

Leverage the Advantages of Digital

Digital information systems are far superior to physical files. Digitalized systems and processes are faster, more efficient, more secure, and more flexible than any process still dependent on paper. Digital documents are the best way to store information, as the efficiency of digital storage systems can hold the equivalent of millions of pages of paper in a space no bigger than a deck of cards. 

Consentia offers flexible, custom-tailored, local paper scanning solutions for any volume of files. Accelerate your information processing with digital systems, without having to send your important files out of Alberta. We never take risks with the security of our clients’ files, which is why our secure facility utilizes an air-gapped server to store your new digital copies. Get in touch with us today to discover how we can help.

Where should I store documents in my house?

For documents you keep at home, or copies of documents in your safe deposit box, get a home safe. It should be fireproof and have a secure locking mechanism. A safe at home helps you keep these items safe from people you don’t want accessing your personal information, as well as any emergencies, like fires or floods.

What documents should you keep for seven years?

Period of Limitations that apply to income tax returns

Keep records for 7 years if you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction. Keep records for 6 years if you do not report income that you should report, and it is more than 25% of the gross income shown on your return.

How do you store personal papers?

The best way to protect your important documents is with a home lockbox. This is what FEMA recommends for storage. Get a fireproof, lockable box so your documents will be safe in an emergency. Also make sure the box is easy to carry so you can take your documents with you if you have to leave.

Where can I organize important documents?

Paper documents should go into a locked location. Crucial items — such as birth and marriage certificates, titles, wills, insurance policies — are candidates for a safe deposit box or fireproof safe. Store the safe “somewhere not obvious in the case of a break-in,” Madison says, and keep digital copies of its contents.