Should Government Offices Store Paper Documents? or Digital Images?

I received an email message from a newsletter reader asking about a recent 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 wanted proof of that. He did not have any more information than that.

“Today, I contacted the County Clerk to verify that they were married there. The clerk found the record. I asked how much would it cost to get 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that, within 25 or 50 years, no government office will be storing paper, except for a very few exceptions of important historical documents, probably kept in a local museum.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 so they can keep paper copies?” Please post your comments below.

43 Comments

It’s my view that documents should be kept in their original condition. Documents first created on paper, should be kept, stored and archived in paper form. “Documents” that were created electronically (whether a form, an email, a website) should be stored electronically.

Which is not to say that paper documents should not be scanned and made available electronically. But scanning should not mean that the original can be destroyed.

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Nothing beats going to an old courthouse and rummaging through a stack of books/journals in the basement and making finds that tie to your family. The smells, touch and ambiance cannot be duplicated. Being able to hold the book and touch the page that your ancestor might have touched is quite something. That being said, I totally realize the practicality and benefits of those old documents being replaced by their digital counterparts. Then to hear of government offices, museums, historical societies or other repositories burning, flooding or blowing away in a tornado or hurricane not to mention theft and neglect also makes us all hope that copies were digitally made and stored safely elsewhere. It just seems sad to me that generations that follow will probably not get the tactile/sensory experiences we once enjoyed. They however will be able to do the work of what took us many, many years on a family tree in the space of a few late nights in their living rooms. That is already so true with the census (and yes other records).
Bottom line, I WISH they could continue to store paper. I HOPE they have a digital backup and totally understand the demise of the paper copy.

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I wish I could get an original document for free! I can see the logic behind the move to digitize everything – safer, cheaper to store, easier to locate and send out to others. Somehow it feels a little wrong in some way. I suppose for whoever is searching for that record in the future, it will give them exactly what they need and probably faster and for less cost so that isn’t a problem. We can’t assume that governments will be able to store everything forever as we can’t afford the cost! Probably the way of the future and in some places, the future is here. It will also put a stop the sad facts that much is already lost due to fire, flood and neglect. I can live with this kind of future, but what happens when any or all access to digital materials doesn’t continue? Or isn’t available? Think of a time without power or a disaster and people can’t prove who they are, let alone their ancestors?

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We are today a very mobile nation and it would seem to make sense to store the item electronically and make it available thru on search. Then if you want the full copy, let there be a fee to cover the costs. While this will not address all issues, such things as birth death and marriage records it would seem to work well. Now for wills, estate probates, adoption records it may not work. What about court records, jail records probation records. Juvenile records are generally sealed. Property records could be indexed as well. Certainly does not address all of the issues but this could be a start.

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They may have been talking about the certificate that would have been returned to the couple after the marriage, not the other original county records of the marriage. I have been fortunate to receive two such documents when visiting county clerk offices. Those are not docs the clerk would normally keep.

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It all depends upon how good a job they do of digitizing the paper originals. We have all seen microfilms that are under or over exposed, out of focus and barely readable, even before getting to the issue of deciphering handwriting.
Mass production of the digitization process, especially if outsourced to an outside contractor who pressures employees to meet unrealistic quotas, is conducive to inconsistent image quality, given that some of the original documents in a set may have been lighter than others to begin with, or to have yellowed or faded faster over the years. The results are usually spot-checked, but defective images still slip through the cracks. That’s perhaps good enough in a cost-conscious budget-cutting environment, but ONLY if the originals are going to be permanently retained to allow for the possibility of re-digitizing them as lurking bad scans are discovered in the future. The problem I forsee is that the originals will be destroyed or otherwise disposed of, and the information they contain irretrievably lost, before all the bad images in the digitital collection been discovered.
In addition, when it comes to old handwritten documents, we all know that the ink often did not flow evenly from quill pens, leaving gaps in the lines of the letters or blots on the page. (I’ve even seen this happen with ball point pens.) Bleed through on two-sided documents is another impediment to legibility of digitized images. In such cases, examination of the original document often allows us to see the uninked 3D impression of pen on paper and in that way discover exactly what was originally written, but only provided the original paper cooy still exists because this 3D evidence is not captured by the scanner and will be forever lost if the original is destroyed.

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    Many digital scans are grey-scale or, worse,black and white. Often, these are difficult to read because of subsequent annotations, dust, and so on. When one gets to see the original, it is often the case that the ‘noise’ is in a different colour from the original image. Now that many scanning projects are in colour the problem is reduced for those cases. However, what other advances in recording will be lost if the original has been discarded?
    I am most sympathetic to the cost constraint problems of archive organisations but I hope that they will always be responsive to G’s comments and always use the best scanning technology.

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    George R. Nettleton June 25, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    Agreed. The copies need to be double checked before considering giving away the original copy. When making copies of a book, even a record book, it may become more difficult, but now with Digital photos, each can be checked before making the next copy-the old microfilm, with film cam eras, weren’t able to check the copies until the film was developed and that’s the problem with some of the older copies-I’m hoping, with the digitizing familysearch is doing, that the make notes and re scan some of the original document pages that are illegible, out of focus, or otherwise “useless”.

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Are all government entities everywhere in agreement about what constitutes a legal document? In these days of PhotoShop (even the lowly Paint app included with Windows), is anything that comes out of my Canon inkjet, and appears to be a scan of an original document, going to be accepted in all cases? So far the answer has been yes, and that’s scary in a way.

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    In the case of the Vital Certificates from the GRO of England & Wales, many of the images of historical birth and death certificates have been digitised. Any straight print from such an image is emphatically not a legal document. It has to be printed and stamped on the special paper, as evidence that it has gone through the correct process and isn’t the result of me and Photoshop concocting something.

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Both…While I enjoy the digital images, I can only imagine what it would be like to hold a one hundred year old document in your hands.

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    @Ann Marie Bryant
    It feels awe-inspiring, actually. It’s in the original frame with the original glass, but I have my grandfather’s original 1908 confirmation document (which also gives his date of birth) in my possession, and just touching it and knowing he and is parents held it at one time gives me goose bumps. I handle it with utmost care. I scanned it (it was too large for my standard scanner, but I got the important parts), and keep it in a dark location so the colors don’t fade. I have the set of hand-blown etched water glasses my Norwegian gr-grandmother brought with her from Norway in 1883. I have the two watches (minus fobs) that my Danish gr-gr-grandmother and her daughter, my gr-grandmother with the same birthday, owned; the latter is wearing the watch in one of the photos I have, so that’s why I know it was hers. I have my mother’s baptism and confirmation documents (1924, 1938). I had some other items that belonged to my maternal grandmother that I gave to her gr-gr-granddaughters as wedding gifts. I also have old photos (scanned in high resolution tiff format, restored, and put away so direct sunlight doesn’t fade them, images backed up and also scanned and sent to many cousins), and old negatives from which I made high-resolution tiff scans (ditto backups and sent to family). I am old and have the responsibility of passing down these items to people in my family who care about family heirlooms, and I feel that responsibility keenly.

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    What treasures you have acquired. It’s so nice to know others have that drive to keep and preserve our heirlooms, history, and stories. Mrs. Anderson, I am glad you responded to my message. You made my day. Not everyone understands why we do what we do. Blessings to you.

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““What is your email address?” and you then would have received your copy within 15 or 20 seconds.”
I doubt that would happen! I’ve never found a courthouse that gave out anything for free.

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    I have. Guess it depends on the courthouse and who you get on the phone. I was requesting a probate file and received the email within the hour.

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If the rosetta stone was created as a digital document back then, would we still be able to retrieve it today? Is there any guaratee our digital storage methods will be useful in the future?

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    This conundrum faces archivists all over the world. Digital backup is so new it is recommended that every time a computer is upgraded that all backups not on our server be manually opened and the contents be checked for viability, then redacted in the new version. For even a large institution, this is time consuming–for a small one impossible in staff availability. Can anyone today read MSDOS? The cloud is great, but what happens is the co. Is sold, or goes under? Where will the cloud contents go? Discs deteriorate, programs change. This is our nightmare.

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About 10 years ago, I was back in the courthouse in my hometown of about 5000 population in OK looking for marriage certificates, etc. They offered me any of the original paper documents I wanted because they were converting to another method of storage and were going to get rid of the originals. cannot now remember whether it was digital or microfilm. I took all the copies I could think of at that time that pertained to my genealogy research. I would have loved to have taken all that were available but that was impossible for size reasons.

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The reality is that paper documents do not survive forever – yes, their life may be extended in carefully controlled conditions, but their existence is finite. Digitisation is the only way to go – yes, formats e.g. Pdf, jpeg, will be superceded by other formats, but the conversion to a new format should be straight forward. Preservation and storage of paper documents is going to cost a lot of money – who is going to pay? – I suspect most tax payers at all levels will not view this as a priority area for expenditure of their tax dollar.

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Keep the originals! However, make high-quality tiff (or jpg) format images of all the records, make them available on the internet. That’s what they do in Norway and Denmark – for free. They have old microfilm images, but all newer images they’ve put online are digital images. In Sweden there is a corporate fee-based web site that is re-imaging the documents and they’ve gotten rid of the old microfilm images (but they still might be available elsewhere). I’m not crazy about the Java format because I can’t download a page and print it out legibly on a letter-sized piece of paper to put in my notebooks, but have to enlarge the image and just get part of a page.
If a courthouse doesn’t have storage facilities, then the historical society – as long as it’s not a location prone to floods, fires, other natural disasters (e.g., Grand Forks, ND in 1997 when the Red River of the North had a massive flood; it made the national news; the newspaper of record lost about a century’s worth of old newspapers – or hurricanes in the southern seacoast states that have wrought such destruction). I’m not sure what was lost in the GF courthouse, but one assumes a lot of records are gone.
If not at a courthouse, then a state’s historical society or state archives after making high resolution scans of all documents and putting them online. Naturally, several backups should be made and digital images offered through the state’s historical society or state archives as well, but originals stored where there is the least danger of being destroyed by fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.
I learned a long time ago that if I request a certified copy they re-type the info and sometimes there isn’t a blank for info, and other times they add info not in the original image, or they make typing errors…, so I request a photocopy of the original document (high-resolution computer scan would work, too, but not everyone is tech-savvy about how to do a high-resolution scan in jpg or tiff formats). One courthouse sent me a photocopy of my gr-grandparents’ marriage license and someone in their office notarized the photocopy; that worked beautifully because there was a large space that was blank toward the bottom of the page. However it’s done, I try now to work almost exclusively from copies of original documents.

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Sounds great, but down the road, I suspect the tech upgrades in smaller areas will not happen, tech. changes fast and folks have to be trained how to use it, storage and money to run this also a lot of space too. I am not for giving away legal documents to family members. Who is to say they will or will not share or preserve it for the next generation. I have a cousin that died and his kids threw out everything he had including his computer.

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I’ve read about the fire in Aberdeen. All of those records are gone! If they haven’t been “scanned” there is nothing. While I agree it’s nice to “touch” the actual document, many of us don’t have the luxury of going to the actual site anyway. And Kat’s point about not giving out things for free highlights the problem – Yes, keep the paper copy; yes, build additional “safe” storage; no, don’t tax/charge us to do so???? Don’t charge us for the “little bit of time” it would take to pull the document to show or scan it and send it to an email?
And, many of us would love to have some of those “original” documents.

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Actually, loss of original paper documents has always been a characteristic of courthouses. Those wonderful volumes filled with wills are not the original wills, of course, they are simply the clerk’s “copy” of the original will. I’d rather have a digital copy of the true original will!

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Dick: You know this same issue faces our Federal Government – just look at the issue of storing the CENSUS. Consider the loss of the 1890 census! They also plan to digitize then destroy the originals. My military records were in those lost in 1973. I must still imagine what might have been in them, but since they were NOT digitized I can only guess. Thanks for stirring the investigation into important issues. Carl PS; As an Archivist I am plagued by this same dilemma – but here, digitization costs me more than saving the originals.Until I can digitize I must watch not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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I just hope they remember to update the digitised copy. They won’t be any good in 100 or more years like the paper copies are now.

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Storage formats for digital information keeps changing. Are governments going to update as this occurs, or will the digital information eventually be unavailable because there is no device to read it?

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I would echo many of the other writers. What if they miss an image? I have seen too many instances in which the digital image does not exist, but the page in question still does. Legibility remains a concern. And there is nothing quite like holding in your even gloved hand a document written by an ancestor from two centuries or so ago.
I can understand the desire to digitize, and I am all in favour of making documents more readily available, protecting them for the future, and saving taxpayers money. But I would think providing them to the local genealogical or historical society or public library, college or university, etc. would be a much better solution than sending them to descendants.
That said, I had someone tell me a few years ago that she was at a courthouse and they were in the process of throwing out original records. When she asked about getting some to save and provide to a local genealogical or historical society, she was told that they must be destroyed. Had the images been saved first?

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Non-working librarian here; former government documents librarian. I think government bodies need to once again review and define which types of documents need to be stored in paper and pledge to maintain them in a standardized method. I saw how much paper the federal government produced as I handled a lot of it. There are laws and regulations already, but I keep seeing articles in my professional reading about the sorry state of archives. I agree that digital is the future, but even that requires maintenance. I’m for paper storage of critical documents such as laws, regulations and certain court documents with digital copies. This already exists (LEXIS and Government Printing Office, etc.) All other should be either microfilm and digital or digital only. Yes, I said microfilm! Some documents need a form of “hard copy”. In this age of cyberwarfare, cybercrime and cyber mischief, a verifiable copy of documents is needed.

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    Microfilm? As I understand it, there isn’t any – the LDS bought the last of it???

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    “…..Some documents need a form of “hard copy”. In this age of cyberwarfare, cybercrime and cyber mischief, a verifiable copy of documents is needed….”
    Thank you, Robin, for pointing out another very important fly in the digital-only ointment.
    Over time, methods of detecting alterations to paper documents such as birth certificates and old court records have been developed and applied to prevent fraud. I recently read that governments have enough concern about the possibility of alterations being made to digital documents and images that they are the process of investigating ways of preventing it, or at least being able to detect, trace, and undo any alterations that might be made in the future. But so far, their ability to detect alterations to digital documents and images has not yet caught up with that for paper documents. Particularly problematic is the potential for manipulation by persons in a position of trust within the governmental agency that is the official custodian of the information.
    We have already seen several totalitarian regimes try to rewrite the history of their own nations and the world for partisan political reasons, despite the fact the records told a different story. If they had been in a position to alter what the historic records said without detection, what are the chances they might have succeeded in at least muddying the waters to the extent that future generations could never again be able to consider any part of those documents to be a reliable reflection of the events recorded in them.

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I have electronic documents that were made les than 20 years ago that can no longer be read by today’s computers. Thankfully they have been updated into another format. This takes time and money. So what’s going to happen in say 100 years? I personally think digital images are great but can be altered very easily compared to paper. This just opens the door to fraud.

We also have all heard of people loosing all their records due to a computer crash. Can you imagine just how many computer crashes could happen at the county level in say 100 years? Back ups are great but often even the equipment they are on can fail. Oh but you say store them in the cloud….ah but what is the cloud? Just nother big piece of very expensive hardware that can fail. Paper isn’t perfect either so keep the paper for when technology changes and the old electronic copy’s fail you have a back up of that the information can be retrieved from if needed.

Also scanning today is so much faster and better than it was 20 years ago. What might it be like in 100 years in the future? Much better I hope. From experience having the paper and the electronic is the best way. When equipment fails and then destroys your back up on a reload you can always go back and restore everything when needed. Been there and done that.

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    ” I personally think digital images are great but can be altered very easily compared to paper” – paper can be altered as well. You have no guarantee that the register in front of you is the original. In fact, I remember trying to sort out some images of Staffordshire Parish Registers – the same piece of paper appeared under two chapels. Eventually I decided that the first book had been microfilmed, then the book rebound under a different chapel name, and filmed again. No idea why the chapel name had changed…

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Just think. If they had this technology 125 years ago we would still have the 1891 census.

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Paper copies are not permanent and are lost through various scenarios–water damage, fire, natural disasters, etc. But digital records are not permanent either. Through the loss of a major portion of the census records in the 1890 fire I have lost one way of determining what happened to my great grandparents sometime between 1880 and 1900. Through the changes in technology and advances in storing records digitally, I have lost many “documents” that did not survive the advancing improvements. What I am saying is that nothing is permanent and all we can do is attempt to adjust to the changing scenarios that are presented to us. The discussion is interesting though, and I must admit that my preference is paper while acknowledging that I depend on digital technology on a daily basis.

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I worry what information is missed in the digitizing process…For example … the back of the page. Many times I have found additional info on the back of docs, hand written notes and such. Paper is important as well as digital images. It’s a problem

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I’m of two minds here. As a former law clerk who did research at county offices I often had to resort to the original documents because the microfilm/microfiche provided was deteriorated or the scan was not clear. I even found cases where pages were missed when the document was scanned. So if the facility can guarantee that the digital copy will contain all the information in the original document, and can be read without difficulty, then I’m all for getting rid of the originals. But I doubt this guarantee will ever be possible.

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I’m reminded of the science fiction movie (Logan’s Run?) where a super computer lost all of the society’s records of the 15th century. The operator shrugged it off saying nothing much happened then, anyway…

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My biggest reason for PAPER storage is “will the file OPEN in, say, 20 years? At my (government) office I cannot open Word, Power Point or PDF files that are more than 10-15 years old. It says the file is Word/PPT/PDF, but can’t do anything with it! The software IS backward compatible – but only for a few versions. I have a CD of marriage records produced in the 90s as a PDF version 1. Adobe can’t recognize it as a PDF. Yes, paper may be costly to maintain, but who is going to UPDATE all those images when the “next great app” comes out that says it is now the “community standard”?

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    Trip –
    I have always loathed pdf documents, and only downloaded Gimp to convert them to .jpg. Can’t convert the pdf books to jpg, of course, but single image files can be converted.
    Since I “discovered” Screen Shot, I do a lot of them with images and with printed matter in pdf books. In colonial genealogies I do screen shots of pages, use Paint to join images if all the info can’t be included in one screen shot, add the Source data in the top or bottom margin, crop excessive margins, make a .jpg out of the pages (save to appropriate genealogy file, of course, make a backup), print them out for my genealogy notebooks.
    Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I will have images of genealogy documents (or info in books or photos, etc.).

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    —> Can’t convert the pdf books to jpg, of course, but single image files can be converted.

    There are a number of different programs that will convert multi-page PDF files to JPG. One that I have used a few times is the FREE service at SmallPDF.com. It is a cloud-based service so there is no software to install in your computer. It works in any web browser in Windows, Macintosh, Linux and I suspect it works in Android and Apple iOS, such as is used in iPad tablets.

    The free service is a bit limited to smaller books. However, for a fee, the same company offers “SmallPDF Pro” that adds extra capabilities:

    Unlimited access to all our tools
    16 Tools to compress, convert, merge, split and edit PDFs
    Sign documents with your eSignature
    Unlimited document size (up to 5GB)
    Secured with 256-bit SSL
    Connect multiple tools for faster workflows
    Two week money-back guarantee
    Integrated with Google Drive and Dropbox

    Take a look at https://smallpdf.com/pdf-to-jpg

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I received the “original of my grandparents marriage”. It, in fact, was the original that my grandparents never picked up rather than the original in the County’s file. I hope that is the case with some others.
I believe that the papers should be kept if possible as well as digitized.

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The answer is simple-yes, yes,yes, and yes!

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I believe the original should never be destroyed on purpose. There are enemies out there that would like to send us back to the stone age via an EMP. If the records aren’t stored in a Faraday cage the electronic ones would be gone and there are no longer any paper originals. Find a nice big salt mine to store the originals in.

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