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that, within 25 or 50 years, no government office will be storing paper, except for a very few exceptions of important historical documents, probably kept in a local museum.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

45 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)