For 50 years, the United Nations has been custodian to the world's treaties. Now it has embarked on an ambitious project to convert each treaty into electronic media, making them available to Internet users and others without risk to the documents themselves.

Ron Van Note, information systems consultant at U.N. headquarters, is overseeing the project. "After much reflection and many discussions, we decided to go with imaging and optical storage as the best way to convert each page of every document. OCR (optical character recognition) input was briefly considered as an alternative methodology to imaging, but was quickly dismissed, primarily based on the need for complete document protection," said Van Note. "OCR, at best, is considered to be only 90-95 percent accurate. It would cost millions to ensure the necessary 100 percent accuracy due to the multiple languages used throughout the treaties."

Why Choose the Optical Option?

A treaty never changes. It can be modified by adding to it, but the original is never touched. Optical's permanency is ideal for this type of archiving. Optical storage has the capacity to convert large volumes of material -- including important pictures or drawings -- into secure, accessible and permanent files. Local and state agencies also receive documents submitted by external sources. These documents are delivered as hard copy and may not lend themselves to traditional storage methods. Data entry is costly and subject to human error. Character recognition software is not perfect, and many documents cannot be converted by this technology. The document imaging and optical storage combination may hold the answer.

Imagine the many storage systems in place in any one municipality, or how documents must be cross-indexed with other agencies. Using jukebox storage capacities, the sting can be taken out of organizing documents from a variety of storage systems and media.

Jumping Hurdles

"Going in, we knew this was a big job and that there were bound to be some hurdles," said Steve Lehrer, product manager at Liberty Information Management Systems (Liberty IMS), the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based software integrator chosen to implement and oversee the treaty conversion project. "The first priority was the protection of these extremely important world documents. The treaties had to be secure and the integrity of each page assured during the document input process. Afterward, when residing in electronic storage and being made available to outside users, document protection and security had to be irrefutable."

Liberty IMS did hit stumbling blocks during the conversion project. For example, when migrating to electronic storage, the United Nations attempted to scan copies of each treaty in microfiche, but the quality was too poor to guarantee 100 percent accuracy, so it resorted to using the original paper pages.

In another example, Van Note said under the organization's manual library system, the documents were stored by volume in rows of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Volumes were of varying sizes and covered any number of years and treaties. There was no existing cumulative cross-volume index to aid in searching the documents. This made locating a specific treaty cumbersome and time-consuming, frustrating employees and document requesters. "It took a lot of work to find a treaty, locate specific information within the document and then make a copy for the requesting party," said Van Note.

The U.N. library's indexing problem was uncovered during the scanning process. Liberty and their partners had to do a lot of new indexing -- each of the more than half-million pages was indexed during the scanning process. Now, each volume is indexed by treaty numbers and addenda; each page is indexed by volume number, treaty number and language used. Placing the treaties online will speed up the search process and give outside users direct access to the documents.

Language Barriers

Another important aspect of paper-to-electronic document conversion is