Digitizing Historical Records Is a Challenge Worth Addressing

Success in today’s business landscape hinges on timely access to actionable information. With the myriad of challenges facing utilities and other sectors, access to historical records — such as rights of way, land ownership, deed restrictions and covenants as well as records on physical assets — is increasing in importance.

With thousands of these paper records housed in dusty file cabinets, often located in remote and cavernous archive centers, retrieval can be a time-consuming and frustrating exercise, particularly when these documents are urgently needed. Hard copy engineering drawings, surveys, construction documents and maintenance upgrades accumulated over decades are important sources of truth.

The obvious solution to gain better access of these vital records is to convert them into a digital format.

Managing the Legacy

Utilities have long recognized that efficient management of historical records is of vital importance. However, many utilities are dealing with staffing shortages, leaving them with fewer resources for the task of conversions of hard copy documents into digital formats.

Utilities increasingly rely on third parties like 1898 & Co. that have staff with the depth of experience and understanding of a utility’s complex workflows, unique terminology and business requirements. A third party with deep insights into the complexities of routing, real estate acquisition, permitting, engineering design and construction oversight can provide the support utilities need.

A Phased Project Approach

Though aggressive schedules are typical for data conversions, larger projects often require 12 to 15 months for completion. A phased approach is ideal to accommodate schedules while maintaining budget discipline.

Converting paper drawings into usable formats such as those available with the ArcGIS platform generally starts with scans of original documents. It is typical for these documents to show hand-drawn easements, property boundaries and locations of assets such as transmission and distribution poles, transformers and other equipment. Legal descriptions are often part of the record as well as descriptions of encroachments, physical attributes and ownership conditions.

It's not unusual to find descriptions that may reference rocks, trees, fences or buildings as starting points on maps showing dimensions of easements, property lines, section corners, roads or bridges. Text on the documents also may contain information on parcel ownership, such as whether the property is owned in perpetuity by the utility or whether it must be returned to the original landowner once it is no longer needed. All these different types of uses need to be transferred accurately to the digital record under a conversion program.

Whether in text or as a scanned image, digital conversions in GIS format involve conversion into a polygon that confirms where the assets, easements and property lines are located on the actual geographical location. The digitization effort should enable the transfer of drawings showing lengths and widths of the easements and rights-of-way or physical dimensions of facilities and other assets. Once physical features are placed as digital representations, it is then good practice to verify accuracy through a ground-truth inspection of the actual locations to confirm that features are still where they were drawn on maps that may have been produced decades ago.

Factors for Success

Clear and well-defined processes are important to help deal with the inherent complexities of these digital conversions. Efficient and timely communication between utility and third-party staff are at the top of the list.

The review process can be greatly aided by portals, web maps and dashboards that enable team members to track each digitized document. Portals contain records of each file along with the data used to track georeferenced status, including review date, name of each person who reviewed, and relevant status. This streamlined process of relaying metrics helps measure key performance indicators that track and report progress.

GIS web mapping applications built on Esri’s ArcGIS platform include custom tools configured by 1898 & Co. that provide clear views of data that has been added as well as files that have been completed. Data issues that are identified or comments that need to be shared go back to reviewers in redlined format that is synced back to the master database so that corrections can be made easily.

Benefits Beyond Utilities

Paper records of other types of assets within other industries and sectors are appropriate for digitization as well.

For example, a past project for the U.S. military that involved decommissioning and demolition of nuclear silos included the conversion of paper records created decades ago showing many miles of easements required for the network of communications, power and other infrastructure needed to control these highly secure installations. The digitization project involved drawing out all features of the infrastructure overlaid on georeferenced surface land. This helped to determine the actions that would be required for disposal of utilities following decommissioning of the silos as well as land assets that were transferred back to the original owners upon completion of the project.

Interstate oil and gas pipelines are another example of a sector that would gain significant benefits from the digitization of historical paper records. Though pipelines are highly regulated, and records are carefully maintained, many of these records are not currently in digital formats. This makes many of these records difficult to retrieve when maintenance must be performed, meaning that technicians and operators often must rely on institutional knowledge for locations of access points like manholes and vaults.


The primary benefit of a digitization strategy is the time savings and efficiency it creates for operations and maintenance personnel. Instead of days or weeks required to locate and retrieve paper copies from records filing centers, digitized information can be retrieved in minutes.

For service territories spanning hundreds of square miles or linear assets that may stretch across multiple states, it is common for physical changes to occur that may make static, hard copy records obsolete. Whether in paper or digital formats, these records must be consistently maintained.

Having the most accurate decision-making tools accessible has become a necessity in today’s fast-moving digital environment. Converting thousands of files into a digitized format may seem overwhelming, but with the right team in place, it can be done.


Jake Stevenson

Senior Project Manager