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Pennsylvania State University: Imaging at Penn State: One Solution, Multiple Variations

Penn State University is a big school, as big as they come. From undergraduate to post-doctoral programs, the university serves almost 80,000 students on 24 campuses. As such, it has all the needs of any business, and has human resources, accounts payable, and enterprise resource planning systems. In addition, it documents the administrative path of all its students, from first admission through alumni gift-giving.

Thus the number of student-related records far exceeds 80,000 as it includes applicants who do not ultimately attend the school as well as all 400,000 living alumni. Not surprisingly, documents—primarily paper—are the fabric of the institution. Document storage runs into the billions of pages.

In the mid-1990s, that became overwhelming. Increasingly, paper was stored off site. The time and cost of mailing or faxing documents to campuses across the state exasperated the staff and sapped funds from important projects. In 1994, Penn State formed a university-wide Imaging Committee to evaluate the ability of document technologies to meet its needs. The resulting report, available at

computing/imaging.html, noted several advantages that document imaging technologies could provide, including simultaneous access to centralized records; elimination of expensive recordkeeping redundancies; limiting labor costs; and improved documentation of research and archiving of visual materials.

In late 1996, the Committee began to request proposals for an imaging system, and ultimately chose a system from Optical Imaging Technology (OIT). “It had a lot to do with features, functionality, and their good track record,” said Edie Hertzog, associate director of Penn State Information Resources. “Looking at their demo and what they offered, it was easy to see a vision that would bring us a long way.”

OIT installed a prototype system at the Finance and Business offices. When that solution proved successful, Penn State bought an unlimited enterprise license from OIT. Soon after, the accounting, police, and human resources departments began to install the system, followed by physical plant and the office of administrative systems. By early 2002, 13 departments used OIT software. “Now we have imaging and COLD [Computer Output to Laser Disk] implemented across the university system, and we have plans for additional installations,” said Hertzog.

As with most campus-wide conversions, some departments resisted the change. The Imaging Committee and OIT realized that the implementation process and training were as important as the software itself. “Although it is easy to use, the software has so much functionality that you can’t easily comprehend it,” said Hertzog. “Once you have a vision, you have to sell it to users. You try to do something really good, but if people who use it don’t buy in, it is a constant sorrow. The places where this has been most successful are the places that have created the correct interface between images and their work.

Recognizing their interdependence, Penn State and OIT created an active user group. Within the user group, OIT can hear the needs of the users, and subsequently work to improve both the software’s functionality and its delivery. “It is an evolving product, and we are a part of the development process,” Hertzog notes.


Accounting is one of the largest departments within the Corporate Controller’s Office, which oversees the university’s finances and was the initial point of installation for OIT products at Penn State. The office also includes Payroll, Risk Management, Financial Reporting, and Research Accounting. The latter monitors the grants and expenditures related to all of the academic research at Penn State.

When Accounting was paper-based, most of the several million records were stored away from the office site.

Both retrieval and re-filing were labor intensive. Operators who now scan between 3,000 to 5,000 pages per day—in addition to credit card receipts and statements—replaced the old retrieval process in 1997. Now the most recent records reside in a RAID storage system for near instant retrieval. As records age, they migrate to an optical disk jukebox where retrievals may take a few seconds.

Nearly all of Accounting’s records are now digital, and the rest will follow shortly. Workers with security clearance view the images (primarily accounts payable documents) using a Web browser.

Law Enforcement

For the University Police Department, the issue is not the overload of paper as much as accessibility and “share-ability” of records. Bruce Kline, a 30-year veteran of the Penn State Police and Assistant Director for Administrative Systems, oversees the documentation of about 3,300 cases per year. “Most take from three to 10 pages, but in 1997 we had a shooting that generated thousands of pages.”

The bigger challenge is sharing information regionally. University Police interact with six different city police departments, the Borough of State College that administers two townships, and two other townships with their own P.D.s. Those offices and the regional 911 center exchange information on a regional intranet. The University Police staff of 65 views any of the departments’ 2.5 million pages almost instantly. Although not yet implemented, they have the potential to fully share their files with any agency they choose via conventional browsers.

Undergraduate Admissions

The Undergraduate Admissions Office was ripe for remote access because of its structure. The Office processes applications for admission to all undergraduate programs at 20 campuses. Now Web access to student applications and supporting documents replaces a tremendous amount of manual filing, shuffling, and a flurry of faxes and phone calls. Remote workers simply log in and call up any records they need to see.

Penn State receives about 50,000 undergraduate applications a year. This is complicated by the fact that it is a seasonal load, with most arriving in the fall, and that supporting documents often arrive independently and sporadically and need to be associated with particular applications. The solution is that each paper application receives its own bar code when it arrives. When supporting documents arrive, the mainframe database finds the applicant by name, social security number, or other identifiers, and assigns the application’s barcode to the new arrivals.

The 2001-2002 admissions year was the first time that almost half of the applications arrived over the Web. Those applications go to the mainframe system directly. They become entries in computer reports that are available to browsers with no significant difference from the scanned paper applications. Because the mainframe is fully integrated with the OIT system, changes made in the database automatically appear in the document system.

Hertzog points to the integration of OIT software with existing platforms, systems and databases as one reason for the multiple successes at the university. Penn State is now building its own portal system, and has asked OIT to integrate the document technologies with the portal application.

Gordon E.J. Hoke, VP at eVisory Consulting (, has been a consultant in document and content management for over 10 years. He has published over 150 articles, white papers and case studies on the business of technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

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