Blog Post

Keep your paper documents as organised as your iLife

iTunes and its siblings make our digital possessions easy to organise, categorise and search. For years my paper life has lagged significantly behind the organisation that I imposed on my media, with important documents languishing in a drawer just waiting for some impending disaster to wipe them out or even get stolen. This was completely unacceptable for an organisation geek like me, so read on for how I regained control, and kept secure, my paper records on my Mac.

The key, to digital organisation of paper, clearly, is a scanner. I have a really old (by really old, I mean 5 plus years) Epson Perfection 1200 scanner. It’s that disgusting, long-forgotten beige colour, which only stubbornly remains on Windows office PC’s – so it gets well hidden as it is not exactly a joy to behold. Once a week (ish) it comes out to play with a weeks worth of important paper to scan, so I can keep on top of any paper lying around the house and essential admin that has to be done in my life. Image Capture recognises it natively via USB, so no other drivers are necessary.

You should be able to pick up a similar scanner second hand from ebay quite cheaply. For quick reference, here are ebay UK and ebay US searches for that same model. I wouldn’t recommend it for photo scanning, although the quality is definitely respectable, but for documents it’s just fine. Otherwise, scanners start cheaply, and go up to whatever you want to pay – the choice is yours, but make sure that you check it is Mac compatible.

Although having a scanner is not a pre-requisite for this system, it certainly makes the objective much easier. There are a lot of forward thinking companies that issue bills, receipts and invoices in PDF format now, and the following setup will work with them, but securely backing up those paper documents will not be possible without a scanner.

So grab them, your scanner, and we’ll dive right in. First, download kip (currently free) and Knox ($29.95), two separate pieces of software that are well designed and simple to use. I am a fan of good UI and both Knox and kip fit the bill, meaning that I want to get (and stay) organised, which is half the battle.

kip takes care of the scanning and categorisation, whilst Knox keeps your documents secure. Knox is not an essential, as you could use the Apple supplied Disk Utility instead, but it will make your life a bit easier.


kip is the app that we’ll be spending most of our time in. It’s relatively fresh out of the box, still at the time of writing on a 1.0.1 release, but this also means that it is still freeware too. The developers are planning on charging for it a later date, however it works wonderfully now. It takes care of the scanning and categorisation side of things, allowing you to scan your documents directly to PDF, including adding multiple pages. Scanned documents are automatically added to your kip library, and you can tag, title and date each document as you go. The process and time taken for each individual piece of paper is fairly painless, but if you are working through a backlog then it could take some time and multiple sessions to get completely up to date.

The software has a neat and unique UI, with a few quirks and bugs however. Sessions of scanning are only saved on quitting, which makes a crash half way through an extensive session of scanning extremely annoying. Be sure to keep dropping in and out of the program every so often to make sure the database is saved.

In general though it’s simple and easy to use, with a decent filtering system (selecting multiple tags in the left sidebar drills down through documents to find the one you are after), funky tag rollover effects, like the magnification of the OS X Dock, and a good scanning workflow. For a 1.0.1 release it’s really promising, and depending on the price and new features added, and I’ll probably end up buying it when it becomes shareware.

Adding a PDF document to kip downloaded from the web or received by email is even easier than scanning paper. kip automatically installs an ‘Add to kip’ option in the PDF dialog when printing a document, so it is possible to send documents from pretty much any other program straight into it. It then automatically suggests tags and a title based on the document contents. These often need editing, but it’s normally a good starting point.

kip’s Library window

In the screenshot above you can see the documents in the centre, tags in the left panel, and document info on the right. Mousing over a document gives you a useful magnified preview, showing related tags too.

kip thumbnail mouseover

Mousing over documents in kip gives you a preview of the document with its tags

I then recycled much of the paper that I had scanned. Throwing it out and regaining some space was very satisfying, and well worth the time spent on getting up to speed.

So that’s kip. It stores it’s documents in its own folder inside user/documents as PDFs, so they are completely accessible with other PDF readers. You can open them in Preview or Adobe Reader, and are not tied to Kip in anyway. Kip also offers rudimentary .mac syncing, which does little more than copy these documents to your idisk for retrieval if your lose your data. Scans can take up a fair bit of disk space so beware of using this option as your library grows.

kip – the one caveat

All this scanning of documents means that your entire private info, previously only available to someone who looked in that drawer, is now on your computer. Not only that, it is stored in your documents folder (and iDisk if you wish) both completely unencrypted and fully searchable by Spotlight. I would prefer kip’s developers to err on the side of interoperability with the scanned documents, but it does mean that if you are planning to store any kind of personal or confidential data then you’ll definitely want to encrypt and secure these documents in some way. Until (and if) the developers implement this feature, you are left with a couple of options.

Securing your data using Knox or Disk Utility

Disk Utility, as you may or may not know, lets you create your own disk images that can be password protected and encrypted. The data resides within the image until it is opened and mounted on the desktop, similar to your internal hard disk or a thumb drive. Although these images can be made by Disk Utility, supplied by Apple in your Applications/Utilities folder, using Knox is a much friendlier way of creating, managing and backing up any disk images you decide to create. Knox features automatic backup to iDisk, iPod or external hard drive and can sit in your dock or menu bar for quick access to your ‘Vaults’, otherwise known as Disk Images. It’s very nifty, and well worth the money.

Knox Menu

Knox resides in your menubar for easy access to any of your encrypted vaults

So, first quit kip, and then create a vault using Knox, or to do so using Disk Utility go to the File Menu>New>Blank Disk Image. Next choose disk type: encrypted and your image size, and once you have selected your chosen destination it will ask you for a password. It will then create your new image for you. Open this, type in the password and it will mount on the Desktop / in your Finder sidebar.

Creating a Disk Utility Encrypted Image

Creating an encrypted Disk Image using Disk Utility.

Next, copy all the folder called ‘kip documents’ within user/Documents/kip documents into your newly created disk image (making a backup first would be a good idea). Leave that disk image mounted for now.

Whenever kip launches it looks in the Documents folder for the ‘kip documents’ folder. It is this folder that contains your entire Library and any associated data. As you have moved the kip documents folder away from user/Documents and into your disk image, if you start kip again now you will find that your library will have disappeared into the ether- not good when you have just spent hours scanning and categorising paper.

To fool kip into using the documents on the encrypted, password protected disk image it is necessary to use a symbolic link (aliases won’t work) to the ‘kip documents’ folder in your disk image. I did this using Cocktail, however the great SymbolicLinker contextual menu add-on (freeware) can do this too, and it’s free of charge. It’s a great tool to have, so I recommend downloading it and keeping it on your system for occasions such as these. Once installed, right (or ctrl) click on the ‘kip documents’ folder in your disk image, then select Make Symbolic Link at the bottom of the menu that appears. Finally, drag this new, linked, folder into your documents folder. Make sure it is called ‘kip documents’, fire up kip and you should see all your previously scanned or imported PDFs sitting pretty in your Library.

Encrypting your files means that there are two extra steps that have to be performed at either side of your scanning session – mounting the disk image (via Knox or the Finder) before launching kip, and unmounting it when done. Dead easy. You can then set Knox to backup that image, or use your backup tool of choice. Disk images made by Knox or Disk Utility can be opened on any Mac running OS X, so are ideal for backing up these documents to a server or iDisk for easy access if the worst happens.

Final Word

Now I can sleep safe at night in the knowledge that if anyone does burgle my flat, my most of my documents are out of their reach. If the computer is stolen, unless they can guess the vault/image’s password then they won’t be able to access these important documents, and I can back them up easily to CD or server somewhere. Finally, if I need any of these documents when I’m away from home, I simply have to hook-up my iPod or thumb drive to my laptop, unencrypt the image and all the relevant info is there for me to access.

40 Responses to “Keep your paper documents as organised as your iLife”

  1. Even if you the most updated document software, if you do not organize even your back up files – then you will have difficult time looking for the files that you need. The same goes with paper documents. This is why we need to alter our disorganized working habits, if we have them, and try to keep track of everything that goes on with work or at home. A stress-free working environment tends to be more productive.

  2. It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filling system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!