Columns > Published on May 15th, 2015

My Digitization Nightmare: 10 Ways To Fail While Digitizing Your Work

I don't know much about life hacks. I don't know a lot about the finer points of Evernote. And I definitely don't understand the life-saving magic of tidying up. I missed that class at Hogwart's, I guess.

What I do know is that I just moved. As in, moved from one house to another. As in, carried every item I own, in my arms, out one door and into another.

Every time I move, my relationship with my stuff really changes. A few hours into a move, I'd consider abandoning a child to save the effort of carrying him. Maybe not a first-born, but a second or third, one of those back-up kids...

Unfortunately, I don't have a kid. So leaving one behind wasn't an option. What I DO have is a trunk full of old writing.

It's huge. It's heavy enough that the handle nearly broke when I carried it. It was like watching one of those strong man contests, watching me get this in my new place. There were veins popping out of my arm where there should not ever be veins on a human arm. I grunted. My head turned pink. I regret not asking a protein powder company to sponsor the feat.

What makes this thing so heavy? It's jammed full of old papers. Poems from college, journals from the last decade. Invitations I made to an imaginary party that was never meant to happen. I just had some funny ideas for invites, wrote them down, and tossed them in here. This is the sort of stupid impulse that results in a trunk of old writing.

I moved it. All of it. But I don't want to move it again. Which is why I decided to digitize it.

It was with this simple goal that my nightmare began.

Mistake 1: Underestimation

People make everything sound so easy. Oh, just digitize your old papers. It's so easy. Just turn this giant trunk of crap into a simple, digital piece of crap. Keep it on a portable crap drive. Throw it in the crap cloud. It's so crappin' easy!

It's not easy. Trust me on this one, digitizing a trunk of papers is not easy. You might think that with a little hard work and effort, you'll find yourself in a tidy, beautiful, paperless world.

With A LITTLE hard work and effort, I'll tell you where you'll find yourself. Hell. A hell of papers scattered all over the place, a hell of confused, mis-named and misplaced files. A hell where up is down and down is up. If you put in just a little effort, a normal human effort, I'm here to tell you, Hell Is For Real, and you will find yourself there.

Granted, this whole project, the work, it's not busting concrete with a sledgehammer or working a railroad or smashing rocks.

Hey, how come every prison job is just hitting stuff with a hammer?

Whatever. It's not a prison job. But it's work. It's hours and hours of work. Don't underestimate that simple fact.

Mistake 2: Optimism

When I opened up my trunk of papers, I was optimistic. I knew there were a lot of papers, and I knew they weren't organized all that well, but I figured it was manageable.

What I didn't expect was that opening this trunk would be like opening the Ark of the Covenant. Face. Melted. Off.

It wasn't just the amount of paper. It was the complete lack of organization. Looking back at my old papers, it was almost like I'd made it difficult for myself on purpose. Like I'd crammed all my stuff in there with the idea of making it hard in the future. Like I'd forgotten about my past as the Batman villain, The Disorganizer, the criminal who was driven to put things out of order (note to DC Comics: if you're looking for a good way to defeat the Disorganizer, I'd suggest putting him in a room where images of minimalist apartments are projected all over the walls. He'll lose his mind).

Notebooks, sheets ripped out of hotel stationary. Note cards scattered throughout. There was even a stack of note cards from an aborted novel attempt, ordered scenes with numbers, and they were rubber banded together IN THE WRONG ORDER.

In other words, without really considering it, here's how I imagined the beginning of this project.

And here's how it was.


Mistake 3: Pay Your Problems Away

You can't just box this crap up and send it away. This was the first thing I checked after my face reconstituted from the melting. Hey, it's 2015. Maybe I can pay someone else to do this for me.

Bad news. You can't do it. I mean, maybe you can send a box of crap away. YOU. I can't.

If I go to a web site to find out how much something costs, and if I have to request a quote, I'm already screwed. I'm already WELL out of my price range. This is something I've learned over the course of attempting to print t-shirts, embroidered patches, and once, last-minute golf balls that really would have benefited from pictures of a porcupine with its spines replaced with male genitalia (the rare and gross "pornupine").

Trust me, if you stumble into a quote-based web site, the kind where pricing is sent to you via email or (shudder) live-chat, it's too price-y.

Now, if you're reading this and you have no idea what I'm talking about, you might be able to afford this kind of service. I have to assume that you've never seen a quote-based site because your assistant handles that stuff. If you're at a level of success where you employ an assistant, THEN you might be at the level required to have your stuff digitized by a stranger.

Lest you think the only reason I walked away from this option had to do with money, I do have another little problem.

No, it's not because I'm afraid someone will rob my genius ideas. How to put this...

I once decided to embark on a highly scientific experiment to see if I could...uh, "have myself" 25 times in 24 hours. And wrote about it afterwards. Now, these writings MIGHT be in a notebook with a weird Abraham Lincoln coloring page on the front, or they might be in the Spider-Man folder. I'm not sure. However, these words are definitely in my pile of papers. And if that's something I KNOW is in there, it begs the question, what's in there that I DON'T know about?

That's why I can't send it in, okay? I don't need people reading about how I've abused my body sensually for my craft.

Mistake 4: I'm Dumb

When I dug into the trunk, I found papers of every size imaginable. Some of which were seemingly created for novelty purposes only. There are pieces of card stock the size of baseball cards. there's tracing paper. I have old writing on vellum. VELLUM! Why? How? How did I even end up writing on vellum? What was I thinking? Was this piece meant to be distributed by scroll one day?

If I'd spent the last ten years writing on pages that were about 8.5"X11", that would have been great. I could have fed them straight through a scanner in huge stacks. If I'd at least used a consistent-ish KIND of paper, that might have worked too. But alas, no. That just wasn't possible for me, apparently. Couldn't have done that.

I had no idea that the ultimate notebook, the best option in the world, was a ream of loose copy paper.

Mistake 5: Removal

On the topic of notebooks, I do NOT know how to remove pages from a notebook the right way. Or if there is a right way. I tore pages along perforations, I cut them out with a blade. I tried it all, and every single piece of paper came out less rectangle, more the shape of a prison weapon.

A lot of sites handled this part of the digitization process with one or two sentences. "You can scan your notebooks one page at a time, or you can remove the pages and scan."

It's that "remove" word. Such an innocent, little word. Such a lie. It makes it sound like there's a button on the back of a notebook, you press it, and the pages just pop out.

Again, it's not the worst work in the world. Crack a beer and a DVD of the Lord of the Rings Director's Cut. That's what an expert with one ounce of honesty would say.

I would say that you should probably just get the entire LOTR trilogy, plus a Hobbit move of your preference, plus Demolition Man because it's awesome, and if you haven't done so before, see about hosting your own private keggar. It's kind of fun without all the frat boys and when you have the option to drink from glassware you can see through. Armed thusly, you MIGHT be able to get through the notebook disassembly process without running out of viewing material. And even if you do, you can always watch Demolition Man twice. There's just so much nuance you miss on the first dozen times through that film.

Mistake 6: Skip A Test Scan

I had a stack of papers. I had Post-Its stuck to full-size pages. I had notebook pages, and I'd used a paper cutter to get them about the same size.

There's a reason this device is called a "scanner", a reason it has the same name as the Cronenberg movie where people's heads explode.

I was ready for the scanner. Or so I thought.

There's a reason this device is called a "scanner", a reason it has the same name as the Cronenberg movie where people's heads explode.

I scanned a good stack of papers.  A fat wad, writing on both sides, all ran through the feeder, no problem. I had my headphones on, and the machine at the library chugged away, zipping it off into my email. Finally, progress!

After a good hour or so, I went back to make sure the scans had arrived in my inbox. Sure enough, there they were. I opened one up and it even looked pretty good. The quality was great. Same thing with the second image, which was a scan of the back side of the first page. It was pretty good too. Except that it was upside-down.

That feeling when you just threw away a ton of work.

I clicked through a 400-page PDF. Every other page was upside-down.

This is totally my fault. I can never remember if I want something to flip on the short edge or the long one. I don't really know what that means, and I've accepted that this, like a foreign language or empathy, is something that I'm not going to learn in my lifetime. I DO blame Xerox, to an extent. I mean, come on. Who the hell wants to copy, scan, or print something oriented the opposite way on the other side? What's the point of that? I'm sure there's an occasional reason, but can't that be something you have to click a few things to make happen? Can't the defaults for stuff be the way I use it all the time? Can't someone ask ME?

Sure, you can fix this. Google for answers and you'll find out that by purchasing some Adobe products and then writing a simple macro, you could flip every other page of a PDF document.

Again, YOU probably could. As for me, I broke down and Googled "macro" for the first time in my life. I've read that word hundreds of times, and never have I really understood it. For the curious, a macro is an impossible solution to a problem where the real answer is "just manually re-orient 200 items."

Mistake 7: For The Love Of God, For Real, Do A Test Scan

It's hard to tell exactly what happened, but while my huge wad of papers was scanning, it would appear that they got a little out of whack. Which means the first inch or so of every line of every page was missing.

I blame gremlins. Both the creatures and the feature film. The creatures destroy mechanical stuff, and I often get distracted while thinking about the movie. What happened to all those puppets after filming? Where did that old man get Gizmo anyway? It was likely during one of these deep, reflective moments that everything went awry.

I can't stress this enough. They haven't invented a type of CAPS lock or punctuation that would give the emphasis I need here. Maybe an exclamation point, but instead of the dot at the bottom it's a hand holding a gun and the gun is pointing right at the reader.

Do a test scan.

Mistake 8: The Library Rocks

I did most of my scanning at the library to start with. Don't get me wrong, the library rocks, but not as hard as it rocks to wear no pants and be drunk and scan stuff at home.

If you ask some library visitors, they might not see the distinction here. After all, the library's motto is sometimes interpreted as "Give us your tired, your pantsless, your people who are drunk at 11 AM."

If I had a portable scanner, I could do this myself, at home, and once I finished the mass scan I could keep up with work in the future.

Also, beers.

Also, no pants.

There are a couple portable options. One costs about $250. The other appears to be some kind of wand from Brookstone. Brookstone being the company that's like Sharper Image except they posses even less sense. At least Sharper Image was smart enough to go out of business, leaving a warehouse of life-size Predator statues in their wake.

I'm not spending that cash. Or buying anything that's called a "wand." If I'm making a dumb purchase, it'll be from SkyMall, thank you very much.

Mistake 9: Home

If you're embarking on a digitization project, just do me one last favor. Decide where this crap is going. Because I didn't. Not soon enough, anyway.

All this time I'm in front of the scanner, it's time I could be writing new stuff. Or doing something else that might give me something to write about.

Papers went to my email. My Google Drive. A flash drive. They went goddamn everywhere.

Same thing with the actual paper papers. Once I scanned them, I wanted to check if they were online before tossing them. Which meant stacks ended up in my car, my desk, my purse that I call something besides a purse but that's definitely a purse.

If you're doing this, have a plan. Where the files are going, where they'll stay, and what you'll do with the papers.

And by the way, I definitely sent a bunch of crap to the wrong email at one point. If you have an email address close to my own, I apologize, and I apologize again if you got that thing I mentioned earlier. The thing about jacking off.

Mistake 10: Late Realizations

I made a big realization about this entire project. See, you're not just getting rid of objects. When you digitize your stuff, you're making a trade, trading time for space. You're giving up something, a hell of a lot of time, to gain a little space. If that's a good trade for you, then go for it.  But just be aware that it's not a blast. And download some new music or something. R. Kelly's "Ignition (remix)" seems to synch up with the rhythm of a Xerox, if that helps at all. As do most works of the 90's hip-hop group Tag Team.

Your space gets more efficient, but it costs you time.

Here's the other thing.

While the light from the scanner passed over my face, left to right, right to left, I had a lot of time to think. About gremlins, about Gremlins, about why Tag Team's "Tootsie Roll" never caught fire the way it should have. And when I ran out of stupid stuff to think about, there was a little slice of time to think about important things too.

I think the only reason I want to keep my old papers is because I'm afraid that someday I'll run out of ideas. I'll have written about everything I can think of, and I'll need to go back and mine my smarter, younger self.

Which is pretty stupid. Or a stupid reason to do all this work, anyway. Not because it's impossible to lose that spark. It's very possible, and very possible that it's already happened. But it's a fear-motivated decision. A fear of losing papers, a fear of losing whatever it is in my brain that comes up with things to write about. Fear-motivated decisions have never been my best ones.

All this time I'm in front of the scanner, it's time I could be writing new stuff. Or doing something else that might give me something to write about. Instead of being this far up my own ass, I could be writing about something that is, like most of my work, only 90% up my own ass.

And thus, my digitization nightmare ended. With the decision to be 10% less up my own ass. It's a realistic goal. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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