Going Paperless with Dropbox

Life is full of paperwork, both printed and digital.  Our lives generate thousands of documents that chronicles our existence.  When my mother died several years ago I had to go through boxes and boxes that were a paper trail of her life.  It took months to close out her affairs to the point where I could destroy the paperwork.  In the end I had one small folder of documents and many boxes of photographs.

When I die I hope to leave my wife a well organized Dropbox folder that is a digital snapshot of my life.  I want to die paperless.  I’ve been working on going paperless since 2008.

People have been talking about our society giving up paper for decades but it’s never been practical.  We’re getting close.  By 2025, we’ll essentially be a paperless society I hope.  I doubt the printed document will go away entirely, who would want a digital diploma or marriage certificate?

We still need to save all those digital documents somewhere, and I think Dropbox, or its kin, will be the answer.  Years ago I had hoped regulated data banks would have appeared for us to use, but I guess that was wishful thinking on my part.

What’s needed is transition technology.  Businesses have been using optical imaging systems to go paperless since the 1980s.  Home users have had scanners for almost as long, but developing a complete home system for storing documents safely has not been practical until cloud storage became cheap, and it’s still not as safe as the data banks I imagined.  Nobody is regulating data storage.

Three technologies have emerged that move us closer to the goal of being a paperless society.

  • Dropbox
  • Evernote
  • Scanners with PDF scanning


Dropbox, and it’s competitors Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, SkyDrive, Box.net, etc., offers us reasonably safe places to put our digital files.  Scanning files to a laptop that could be stolen, burned up in a fire, or eaten by viruses wasn’t a good solution.  Leaving your important paper files at home in a cheap filing cabinet wasn’t really that safe either.  If you treasure your family photos, they’re one disaster away from oblivion if you only have a single copy – paper or digital.  Digitizing important files and keeping them in multiple locations is the prudent way to go.

I’ve been using Dropbox for awhile and it’s taken time to appreciate what Dropbox can do for me.  It’s also taken time to learn how to create a folder organization structure to use with Dropbox.  Although my system is not perfected,  I feel I’m finally on to something.  It takes time to learn all the tricks, like naming documents by date order (i.e. 2009-05-17-connell-letter.pdf) or configuring the default scan to folder.  I like scanning to a \scan folder on my c: drive so I can easily drag and file to another window that contains my Dropbox folders.  Right now I have a flatbed scanner but I’m looking at a Fujitsu S1300i ScanSnap that has simple document feeder that can scan both sides of a document and works directly with Dropbox and Evernote.

The idea is to store all my paperwork and photos digitally in an electronic folder system that makes finding stuff easy, and it’s protected by backing up to multiple sites.

What really made things come together was when my wife got out our old flatbed scanner to scan her family photos for Christmas presents and I noticed the PDF Scan feature.  I tend to let papers and mail pile up on my desk until the top gets covered in a foot paper.  Every year I swear I’ll never let this happen again, but I do.  This year I discovered how easy it is to scan documents I want to save and file them in Dropbox.

At first I didn’t trust Dropbox for long term storage.  I just used it for temporary storage, like if I had a document at work that I wanted to work on at home.  Then I realized how Dropbox functioned.  I had assumed the files were only stored on a remote server.  That’s not how it works.  Your files are replicated from your Dropbox folder on your local machine and the working copy remains on your computer.  A copy is stored at the Dropbox site.  This means Dropbox acts like a backup system.  Not only that, if you have a second computer, the files are replicated to that computer too.  My Dropbox files are replicated to five computers.  I can also call up those files on my iPad and iPod touch.  That’s two PCs at home, and on a PC, Mac and Linux machines at work.

Counting Dropbox’s storage, that means my files are stored on six machines in three locations.  That’s pretty safe I think.  I assume Dropbox backs up my files too because they offer 30 days of free undeletes and for $39 a year, unlimited undeletes.  And Dropbox encrypts files and uses https to transfer files.  I could also encrypt those files again with something like TrueCrypt, if I was worried about Dropbox poking into my business, which I’m not at the moment.

Right now I have 14gb of unpaid space on Dropbox and I’m using 6gb.  That’s not enough for my MP3 songs and audiobooks, but it is for all my writing, photographs and scanned paperwork.  I do have my music library backed up on Amazon and Google Music cloud drives, so I’m well covered for MP3 files.  I also have 20gb of space at Amazon for non MP3 files but it’s not as flexible and convenient to use as Dropbox.  And I have 25gb on SkyDrive.  Eventually, as an extra backup protection I might replicate my Dropbox folder to one of my other cloud drive folders.

The key to making this work is the folder filing system I’m creating.  So far these are my top level folders:


My original idea was to create top level folders based on file format types, but I wanted easier access for my most used folders, so I broke Fiction and Nonfiction out of Word Documents.

Under Biographical I have folders for Medical History, Timeline and Notes.   I was keeping text files of to do lists, phone lists, email lists, book lists, etc. in a folder called Notes but I moved it under Biographical.  Do I want to think, “Oh it’s a text file, so look under Notes,” or do I want to think, “Where’s that timeline of schools I went to,” and think Biographical?  I decided to file by meaning rather than file format.

I also have Photos and Wallpaper which both store .jpg files, and I might combine them, but it’s nice to separate family photos from my archive of desktop pictures, screensaver art and art history galleries.

Most everything I save for reference gets scanned and made into a PDF, which has a more elaborate folder structure.  I haven’t scanned my entire filing cabinet yet, and probably won’t, at least not any time soon.  However, I have scanned current paper work and certain old folders, and it wasn’t that much work.  I wish I had a sheet feeder system like our optical imaging systems at work, but I don’t know if they’re worth the buying right now.   I listen to audiobooks as I scan, killing two birds with one stone.

I had a folder of old letters, some 50+ years old, that existed before email, that I scanned and put into Dropbox.   I haven’t decided yet about banking, tax and other business documents.  I worry about privacy and whether or not my digital copy is valid in a legal dispute.  Some paper documents I might save for sentimental reasons, like old report cards or letters from my grandmother, but I do want them digitized.

I’ve discovered that many paper manuals I’ve been saving for my TV, receiver, CD player, cameras, etc. are online as PDFs.   So I saved those PDFs to my Dropbox and threw away my paper copies.  I also found articles I have clipped are often still online, so I found and saved those to Evernote, and threw away my paper copies.  Others I scanned and saved to Dropbox, although Evernote also will store PDF.  In fact, some of the documents I’m storing in Dropbox might be better suited for Evernote, which indexes files for quick retrieval.

For 2013 I need to study the pros and cons of Evernote versus Dropbox.  Right now if I wrote it, it goes in Dropbox, if someone else wrote it, it goes in Evernote.  Except for ebooks.  Normally Amazon handles all my ebooks, but occasionally I get ebooks from places other than Amazon, and I have to maintain the original.  Although I’m thinking about converting .epub books to .mobi with Calibre and sending them to my Kindle.   So that folder might disappear.

One thing I’ve learned is to depend on companies that maintain my digital purchases like Amazon for music and Audible for audiobooks.

Right now I’m using Dropbox as my primary storage for photographs but that could change if I find a photo site that does more.  But Dropbox is so universal that I find it hard to believe other sites could compete.  And if I combine Pixlr.com with Dropbox I can do snappy photo editing on the fly.

Back in 2008 I started down my road of Going Paperless by cancelling my magazines and newspapers.  This has been a slow process.  My mailbox probably gets 90% less paper each week.  I still have to write companies telling them not to send catalogs.  And I still get mail for people long dead.  Most of the other stuff is official documents I feel I must save.  I’m going to look into seeing about getting my health insurance, 401K, credit card and banking statements online, but I want to research the legal safety issues about that first.

Cleaning Out Computer Files

Once I started filing scanned documents into Dropbox I realized I could clean up my computer drives by copying files to Dropbox too.  I have several computers and many external drives that have filled up with up with decades of digital crap, and backups of crap, and backups of backups.  I’ve been going through them copying important files I want to save to Dropbox and then deleting the others.  I’ve found unique photographs I want to keep hidden on different drives, so this process has helped consolidate my picture library.

I’m still worry about the ultimate safety of Dropbox.  Because it replicates copies to all my computers it makes me feel fairly safer overall.  I’m off for the holidays, so I remotely connected to my computer at work and verified that all the files I’m been saving to Dropbox were replicated to my work computer, and they are.  My fear now is Dropbox will go crazy and delete all my files off all my computers.  If you delete a file from Dropbox it’s eventually deleted from all your computers.  If Dropbox went berserk I could unplug the Ethernet cable before I turned on one of my computers and rescue those files.  I could use a replicating program and copy my Dropbox files to my Amazon Cloud Drive or Microsoft SkyDrive, but I’d really like to trust Dropbox.  Once I clean out all my computer files, scan my paper files and create the perfect folder filing system, I don’t want it to get out of sync again.

I also made Dropbox my default folder in Windows.  Thus I won’t be tempted by having a real folder of files and a Dropbox folder of files to maintain.  It’s all one now.

Future Dropbox Projects

Susan’s family history photo project was a big hit at our Christmas Eve party.  She assembled a three generation history of her family starting with her mother and father that was told in 386 photographs.  I’m encouraging her to move it to Dropbox or another cloud site to expand on it.  I also want to create photo histories for my mother and father’s families, and get my cousins to add their photos to mine to build a super photo history.  When my mother died several years ago I inherited all her family photos, and my dad’s family photos.  I’ve been meaning for years to make copies for my cousins.  Now I’m thinking Dropbox will solve that problem.

The Future of Dropbox

I’m not sure Dropbox is the ultimate digital bank vault for my files, but it’s what I’m using at the moment.  I might get burned.  Dropbox could go out of business.  Right now I have enough free space that I don’t need to pay.  What it’s that’s true with everyone?  How can Dropbox make money.  Right now the cheapest plan is $99 for 100gb.  I wish they had a $49 plan for 50gb, that would make a better introductory price.

Or better yet, I wished Dropbox charged a straight $1 per gigabyte per year and we could buy as few or many as we wanted.

You can get free space on Dropbox.  You start with 2 gigabytes by joining but you earn more by getting others to join, and you get bonus space if you join from a referral.  If you don’t have Dropbox use this link and both of us will get 500 megabytes of additional free space.  That means you start with 2.5 gigabytes by using my referral.

As I switch to reading on the Kindle and iPad, I tend to think my book collection will shrink.  Dropbox works wonderful from tablets.  I tend to think sometime in the near future all my books, magazines, photographs, personal documents, videos, music albums, etc. will be on my tablet computer, and my home office will have just furniture and a computer with a big screen and great sound system.

Other Dropbox Tips

JWH – 12/26/12

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