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Should Government Offices Store Paper Documents? or Digital Images?

17 Feb 2021 8:12 PM | Anonymous

I received an email message a while ago from a newsletter reader asking about an experience she had with a county records clerk. I answered her in email but decided to also publish my reply here in this newsletter because I suspect her experience is going to become more common with every passing year.

I deleted the name of the city, county, and state because I believe this is a nationwide and even international issue. It could have happened anywhere. Let's focus on the issues, not on the location:

"Hi, Mr. Eastman

"I wanted to share this with you. I am researching genealogy for a friend of mine. He told me that his parents were married in {city and state deleted} and he wanted proof of that. He did not have any more information than that.

"Today, I contacted the County Clerk of that location to verify that they were married there. The clerk found the record. I asked how much would it would cost to obtaine a certified copy. She said that 'I will mail the original to you.' I said, 'The original?' She replied, 'Yes, we do not keep original documents anymore. We scan them into the computer system and mail them to the nearest family member.'

"I just wonder how many genealogy seekers know this about {city deleted} or is it this way throughout {state deleted}? I thought I would let you know about this."

My reply:

That is still unusual but not unheard of. I have heard that a number of other places do the same thing.

All government offices are cost-constrained. Buying filing cabinets to keep millions of pieces of paper is expensive. However, creating new buildings or expanding present buildings to provide space for all the filing cabinets, along with the required climate controls (heating, air conditioning, and humidity controls), building maintenance, and salaries of people to maintain the place are cost-prohibitive… always costing millions of taxpayer dollars. In addition, storing paper is a poor method as it is sensitive to fires, floods, mold, insect damage, theft, and other problems.

Storing digital copies (with backup copies stored in second or even third locations) is more reliable, safer, easier to handle (such as giving copies to those who ask), and is always much cheaper for the taxpayers.

My guess is that, within 25 or 50 years, no government office will be storing paper, except for a very few exceptions of important historical documents, probably kept in a local museum.

Just think… if that marriage certificate had already been digitized in the past, when you recently talked to the clerk, he or she could have asked, “What is your email address?” and you then would have received your copy within 15 or 20 seconds. Faster, more convenient, and much cheaper for the taxpayers of the county.

- Dick Eastman

What is your opinion? Should government offices keep purchasing filing cabinets, expanding their buildings or making new buildings for their archives, and pay for the “required climate controls (heating, air conditioning, and humidity controls), building maintenance, and salaries of people to maintain the place?”


  • 18 Feb 2021 8:38 AM | Anonymous
    As long as there is adequate backup of the records then digital records are fine and much cheaper to maintain.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 18 Feb 2021 10:46 AM | Anonymous
    I agree that digital is much cheaper and for the most part just as good. It can be more convenient for the researcher as well if the digital copy is on-line or at least more quickly obtainable.

    On the other hand, how often do we find digital copies that are hard to read? Many documents have faded over the years with the digital copy usually reflecting that unless the 'copier' takes a lot of pains and even then the copy may not be the best.
    Link  •  Reply
    • 18 Feb 2021 12:49 PM | Anonymous
      My concern with going all digital is that software changes almost constantly. If records must be changed from one generation of software to the next, wouldn't that be expensive just to maintain usefulness of the records? I know there is a schedule, at least in NY, for disposing of paper records. Depending on the disposal method, that could expose all kinds of personal records for identity theft. Or in the case of court records, something most genealogists would love to find for embellishing their tree, misappropriated records could lead to scandal or blackmail (unlikely but possible). Also, real estate tax record books are usually not voluminous and could be entrusted to a municipal historian or historical society.
      Link  •  Reply
  • 19 Feb 2021 9:13 AM | Anonymous
    Theoretically, with more and more current documents born digital or soon digitized, the need to continually add new space should be lessened. But as with all things paper vs. digital, what you propose is easier said than done. Talk to any archivist, Dick. We’ll enlighten you on just how much paper lurks in the world’s archives and how backlogged processing is. Not to mention the research requests, more pressing or popular public-facing tasks, and lack of support that get in the way of digitization projects.

    Who will decide which “important historical documents” to keep in paper form, and with what criteria? That would be us, the archivists who maintain them. The decision takes some careful thought and training with enough historical knowledge to make that judgment. So you’ll need to trust us. Not every little thing can or should be preserved. But once we destroy the original, there’s no getting it back. Weeding is not always an objective process.

    Let’s take a closer look at that “local museum” you suggest. First, it may not exist, or their funding might be a pittance and their storage capabilities nothing but a leaky basement. These are the organizations that will need more space and more support to deal with everyone’s paper castoffs, and they’re usually the ones that get next to nothing.

    Just some thoughts from an archivist who thinks about these things on a daily basis and is overwhelmed by the amount of detailed and time-consuming work that needs to be done.
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