I frequently hear a genealogist say something like this: “Digital storage methods are dangerous and won’t last long. I am going to save everything on paper so it will last forever.”
I strongly disagree. That is one of the fallacies that seem to float around forever. Professional archivists and data center managers all know better than that.
I certainly do not object to saving information on paper as long as that is only one of the copies made and is in addition to digital copies However, I would never trust paper as the only means of storing information for many years.
Paper is one of the most delicate storage methods available.
Most of today’s paper has a life expectancy of about 25 to maybe 75 years. If you use acid-free paper, the life expectancy is 100 years and possibly more. However, acid-free paper is kind of rare. It is available in a number of places but very few people purchase it.
The bigger issue is the ink that is used. Nobody uses real ink these days. Most documents are printed with ink-jet (which isn’t ink) printers or with laser toner. The liquid ink-jet printing will start to fade within a very few years and, depending upon storage conditions, will probably disappear entirely within 25 to 50 years. Red text made with an ink-jet printer fades faster. The good news is that black text lasts longer, in some cases maybe even 25 to 50 years if printed on good quality paper and stored in ideal conditions.
Laser-printed documents last 25 to 50 years, depending upon storage conditions. Unlike ink, the laser toner is not absorbed by the paper. Instead, the toner is simply heated and “fused” to the outside of the paper. It then slowly fades and flakes off. After 50 years or so, you may have a blank sheet of paper but also might notice some black dust in the bottom of the container where the document was stored.
Of course, the biggest threat to paper is external causes: mold, mildew, insect damage, burst water pipes, condensation, fire, earthquake, hurricanes, tornadoes, theft, or simple neglect. Those things destroy far more paper than simple old age.
In contrast, if maintained properly, digital documents can last forever and be used forever, long after paper has disappeared. The keywords in that sentence are “If maintained properly.” Digitized documents can not be expected to last for centuries if they are simply stored on a disk or flash drive, placed on a shelf, and left there. The information has to be occasionally be “refreshed:” that is, periodically it is read and copied to new media, sometimes translated to new formats.
The U.S. Social Security Administration and most other government agencies have been doing this for more than 50-years. Digital information recorded more than 50 years ago is still available today because someone took the time every few years to copy it to modern media. One obvious example is the Social Security Death Index. Digital records created in 1963 are still available to you and me today and undoubtedly will also be available to our great-great-great-grandchildren.
The U.S. military, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, many other civilian agencies, aircraft manufacturers, automobile manufacturers, drug companies, insurance companies, and thousands of other corporations have all done the same. Most of them still have and use digital information daily that was recorded decades ago. Every competent data center manager knows how to maintain digital information for his or her employer, keeping it available for decades (so far) and probably for centuries.
If you record information with real India Ink (which is almost impossible to purchase these days) and a fountain pen (not a ball point pen) and acid-free paper, then store the result in a climate controlled environment that never has a fire, flood, earthquake or other disaster, paper documents probably will last 200 or 300 years, possibly more. (When writing the document, a high stool, green eyeshade, and sleeve garters are optional.)
Another huge problem is those fires, floods, earthquakes or other disasters. They instantly destroy a lot of paper. The solution is to make duplicates of everything before the disaster and store it elsewhere, ideally storing multiple copies in multiple locations. This process is often called L.O.C.K.S.S. – “Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.”
Making multiple copies of paper documents is difficult, slow, and very expensive so it rarely gets done. In contrast, it requires only a few seconds to make copies of digital documents and file transfer them to distant “digital warehouses.” All data center managers know how to do that and most of them do it daily, if not hourly.
When I worked in large data centers in the 1970s, we typically copied all new data to magnetic tapes daily, then put them in the back of someone’s automobile and took them someplace else. I later worked for Iron Mountain, a company that has made millions by storing paper, microfilm and digital documents in remote storage facilities. You probably see Iron Mountain trucks often. I worked for the Iron Mountain division that handled off-site storage of digital information. Our software made multiple digital copies of all new information every 15 minutes and transferred it to data storage facilities around the world for safe keeping. We were not worried about any one disaster in one place… we had multiple copies of our customers’ data stored in multiple countries.
Today, almost everyone stores digital data “in the cloud” for safekeeping and that has proven to work well in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, in Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, numerous tornadoes, fires, and other disasters. In most of the recent disasters, a lot of paper was destroyed but most digital data was preserved simply because it had been backed up “off site.”
Here is a short list from my newsletter about paper documents that did not last very long. Had digital duplicates been made and properly maintained, we would still have images of the documents for a few more centuries. A search on Google obviously will find many, many more articles about using digital records to preserve information for centuries.