At best, not having access to critical documents and data can be incredibly disruptive. Losing records also introduces risks related to compliance, lawsuits and erosion of customer trust—the repercussions of which can cost a lot of time, money or even the business itself. One result that doesn’t immediately come to mind is the loss of valued cultural history.

Our focus on the future means that we often have a tendency to quickly move onto the next thing, which can mean that history gets lost in the shuffle. Even one of the most incredible achievements in human history—space travel—has been plagued by this issue. Were it not for the extraordinary efforts of a few dedicated archivists, photos from the first five Lunar Orbiters would be lost to time.

The importance of archiving our shared heritage extends beyond spectacular images from outer space. Back on Earth, Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA) is a prime example of an organization taking action to protect the legacy it maintains.

SMHA is a not-for-profit organization based in rural Louisiana. Their mission is to build strong, healthy and prosperous communities, focusing efforts on the low-income families that stand to benefit most from its support.

From establishing the first medical and dental clinic for sugarcane farm workers in the 60s, to providing disaster relief and rebuilding after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, SMHA has acted as an advocate and ally for people in need for nearly 50 years. The organization has also challenged the forces of poverty, racism, sexism and classism at every turn—by waging court battles, influencing policy and taking on lawmakers.

All of these efforts have generated laudable results—SMHA has received more than 60 awards for its work over the years. It also amassed a huge library of historical documents such as letters, case studies, lawsuits and Congressional hearing transcripts along the way. These records are vital to SMHA because they represent the narrative fabric of the mission and what it has accomplished. The organization’s work requires a nuanced understanding of the region’s history and these are records critical for developing that in the next generation of leaders.

All of these records were archived in more than 350 boxes in offsite storage for years. Given the region’s susceptibility to hurricanes and flooding, they had to be loaded into rented vans and transported to safety at the first hint of inclement weather. The association’s leadership recognized that this was not a sustainable process and decided to do something more permanent.

After weighing the options, it was decided that it would not be possible for SMHA to manage this project safely or effectively on their own. They decided to engage an external document conversion services provider to handle the digitization of the entire archive for them. The boxes were taken, prepared, scanned, reassembled, indexed and then returned, just as they were, with a complete chain-of-custody record.

The digitized versions were backed up on external hard drives and redundant hosted servers. The scanning process also created a text searchable layer for the documents that allows the association to easily search the extensive archives and retrieve specific information. All of this was done without disrupting the original documents, and outsourcing the process allowed association workers to focus on their core mission instead of spending hours scanning files.

With their history preserved, the Southern Mutual Help Association can be assured that the next generation of leaders will understand how they got where they are today.

Learn more about the SMHA archival project here, and about how document conversion services can help preserve your organization’s irreplaceable information.