Preserving Documents Digitally Versus on Paper Alone

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.

11 Comments

Those of us who deal in permanent records know that the recommend route is:
digital scan to electronic file….then electronic file to silver based microfilm film
Remember: given worst case scenario, you can always access and microfilm with a pocket 10x loop and a light source

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You are so right! It’s important to correct this fallacy. Another danger you didn’t mention is that when you die, your kids will likely just toss that paper anyway, so digitize it and share it where others can pick up the baton of the research. My rule of thumb is this: I keep paper if one of two conditions is met. First, am I the repository? Meaning, am I the one who has the only (or one of only a few) copy/ies? That’s the same rule you mentioned. I also will keep it if it would cost money to replace. For example, my great-grandfather’s social security application is stored with the government, of course, but the copy costs over $20, so I keep the paper. I have ALL of the paper in a single hanging file folder.

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I have a question that I might try to answer. I quote a few words from the text “read and copied to new media”.
It is quite simple to copy the files in bulk from a disc to a hard drive to an USB. However I suspect by “read” that they should be opened (e.g. JPGs in a photo viewer) so any errors that have crept in by the storage media deteriorating may be corrected. Is that correct?
By “few years” would that extend to say 5 yrs?

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Thanks for this very timely article. I’m giving a workshop to my genealogy society this Sunday and I am focusing on the process from finding data online to how to store it on your computer. I will reference the content here (and hopefully send you some new newsletter subscribers). I will be sharing my system for storing everything in Dropbox that also gets backed up to a separate online backup service. It’s so important to learn that when you find records on a site like ancestry.com, store it in a way that you can find it again in a few years. This also includes information that you scan into your computer. With a proper folder filing system and backup process, the data can theoretically be around for generations to come.

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When storing files digitally, consider file formats. Formats come and go – think of all the wordpro programs that no longer exist. Pdf, gif, and jpg are so commonly used that they may well be “forever” formats, but we need to be alert to files we have in extinct programs. I noticed today that I have a lot of image files in djvu, a format that appears to be fading. I should rescue these files from future digital death by converting them to a more commonly used format, such as tiff or gif.

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    This is why I have kept an old but very functional Windows XP computer with its older programs safely stored away so that I can open and use obsolete programs that new machines don’t support.

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How true this was during the flood of 2008 when we lost our home to 5 feet of flood water. All the pictures I had digitized previously and stored on CDs were still safe. I lost all the paper, etc. I’m still discovering copies of things that I thought had been lost. I’m now digitizing all my genealogical records and will place it on flash drives for my each of my family members. The only paper copies I am keeping are those that may be irreplaceable and may be needed quickly. Current wills and legal documents, photos that can be put in binders, etc. I will keep these where my family can locate them easily if needed. I am approaching my 84th birthday so want my affairs in order. I don’t want it all to go to the dumpster, and no one wants my 9 file drawers of information as well as the 68 3-ring binders of family records.

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While I agree with the idea of multiple copies (digital and paper) I am, as a collateral position, the historian of a small DoD organization. I’ve discovered that ANTHING created and saved as a Word doc, Power Point doc, or PDF that was last saved on or before 2000 is an “unrecognizable format” meaning those applications can’t open the documents. So yes, open and save in the current format. We have many pictures saved over the years as jpg, pict, tiff, gif and many other formats. jpgs, tiffs and gifs are still able to open but others are hopelessly lost. Just be careful and have a plan to open and save as a new format every 5- 10 years. Yes, it can be quite a process and problem – but digital formats are “crisper” than old, faded, wrinkled paper/photographs.

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There is so much junk in peoples genealogy archives that to digitize it as is, you’ll just store more junk in a different format. I saw mounds of hand written data in the local library that was donated when people passed away. The librarian was overwhelmed and did not know what to do with it. It will be tossed when room runs out. It was core data in an unreadable paper format.
100 years from now, no one is going to discover the old hard drive or computer with all your genealogy data. They will have been long tossed out. The technology is changing so fast that no one wants to go into a zip drive, for example, to find your “stuff”.
A better approach, is to gather the data, ORGANIZE IT and yes digitize it in a way that others can read. Then create digital “books” of the data with commentary and Self Publish on Amazon. 100 years from now Amazon will still be here and your content will be accessible (from the cloud) and others can “buy” the document and have it either printed out as a book or view in digital format. Those closest to the data TODAY are best suited to make sense of the data and responsibly store it as an organized digital book.
A second thought for those enterprising individuals who want to create a startup, you could offer a service to digitize and Self Publish the genealogy data for others – even the library I mentioned earlier. I’ve create Amazon books to store photos, stories, raw data, maps etc. It’s actually very easy to Self Pub now. You could digitized family records of thousand of pages, then stored on Amazon, and for a few dollars it can be digitally viewed or printed. And it will be there well into the next millennium.

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One things that’s worth saving on paper is analogue photographs. Not many non-specialists have good enough equipment to store all the detail. In fact many of the above solutions are quite expensive for a non-professional. Ring binders and laser printers are relatively cheap for text, and don’t require new technology every few years. The essential part is recording sources meticulously. And I try to get my stories into print.

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