Too many genealogists are addicted to paper. In this day and age, that’s sad. I have no statistics about the amount of paper, ink, and toner consumed by genealogists every year, but I am sure we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing printers, paper, and supplies. That’s a huge waste of money, in my opinion. I wonder how many filing cabinets are sold to genealogists for in-home use. I will suggest there is a better way to store personal copies of genealogy records and related information.
The “paperless office” was an early prediction made in the June 30, 1975, issue of BusinessWeek. The article quoted George E. Pake, then head of Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto (California) Research Center:
“There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life.”
Pake says that in 1995 his office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. “I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” he says. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”
The same article also stated:
“Some believe that the paperless office is not that far off. Vincent E. Giuliano of Arthur D. Little, Inc., figures that the use of paper in business for records and correspondence should be declining by 1980, “and by 1990, most record-handling will be electronic.”
Of course, the predictions never came true by 1990. In fact, the phrase “paperless office” became a joke, frequently used in offices around the world, usually in offices that are drowning in more paper than ever before.
However, “paperless office” is much less of a joke today. The transition took longer than what Vincent E. Giuliano predicted but many offices are paperless today. That includes many in-home “offices.”
The adoption of computers by office workers and home consumers alike has placed a highly flexible tool in the hands of individuals. Computers are flexible in that they can be used either to eliminate paper or to easily create paper – far more paper than ever possible before the introduction of personal computers and networks.
Most people are creatures of habit. Since these people are accustomed to using paper, they use computers to generate even more paper than what might be reasonably required to meet everyday needs.
Younger people who have grown up in the computer age are generally comfortable with electronic documentation and have little need or desire for paper. However, older workers who were reared in an age when everything was documented on paper often still cling to the belief that paper is required for nearly everything. In my conversations with those over the age of 50, I find many still claim that they “need” paper documents and cannot do the same things by reading on a screen.
Of course, such “needs” are ridiculous. These aren’t needs at all; they are simply ingrained habits. I am reminded of one famous saying:
“We do things this way because we have always done things this way.”
Could there ever be a worse reason for doing something?
As has been proven millions of times by the younger generation, there is no “need” to read paper. Reading on a computer screen or an iPad screen or a Kindle screen or even a cell phone screen is perfectly acceptable to anyone with an open mind. Millions of people do it every day. It makes no difference if we are talking about an entire book or a one-paragraph note from Aunt Millie: reading text on a screen is always as effective as reading it on paper.
For those with vision problems, optometrists and ophthalmologists often recommend the use of e-book readers or tablet computers instead of large-print books. When adjusted to use larger fonts, e-book readers and tablet computers typically are easier to read than anything published on paper.
Trying to imagine the expenses of using paper, toner, and ink is an easy task. However, I find there are even additional “costs” that are not easily measured in dollars. In the case of printed books and magazines, what is the cost of the required bookshelves? If you collect photocopies of documents, what was the expense of purchasing a filing cabinet and related supplies? I also know people who purchased larger homes in order to have room for their books. I would estimate the cost of “upsizing” to be $100,000 per home or more, and yet this happens thousands of times every year. The bottom-line total? I don’t know. The number is probably so large that it would boggle the mind if we could calculate it.
In fact, I will suggest there is no demonstrated need for a large storage space for a personal library.
Many of us learn another term as we get older. Once the children leave home and we near retirement age, we start thinking about “downsizing.” Why pay thousands of dollars in heating bills, air conditioning bills, maintenance, and property taxes for a big home that is no longer needed? Once the children are gone, many people start to think about moving to smaller homes, apartments, or condominiums.
In my case, the “downsizing” was even more extreme. Some few years ago, I purchased a Winnebago motor home with the intention of living in that vehicle full-time at least part of the year. I didn’t plan to halt my genealogy research while living in the motor home; I wanted to continue as normal. Not only did I plan on full Internet access, but I also wanted full access to all my genealogy papers, books, and magazines, wherever I am. In a 31-foot motor home that moves frequently, that is difficult with the 200+ books and hundreds of printed magazines I owned at the time. (I own even more books and magazines than that today although most of them are now digitized.) Then there’s a 4-drawer filing cabinet to think about.
Where do I put all my bookcases and filing cabinets in a 31-foot motor home? Where do you put your personal library in a condo or smaller house?
I eventually sold the motorhome and moved back into a traditional house, one that was smaller than the last traditional house I had lived in. I have since maintained my “downsizing” lifestyle and have avoided the accumulation of paper, books, magazines, bookshelves, and all the other space-consuming items required when reading information in the traditional way: on paper. However, I probably read more these days than ever before. That’s easy: today I read almost everything on a computer screen, including desktop, laptop, tablet and even cell phone computer screens.
Downsizing is a fact of life for many of us, and we cannot escape it. I would suggest that downsizing is, in fact, a desirable goal for many of us. Even those who plan to remain in their present homes can benefit from downsizing their personal libraries. With today’s technology you don’t have to throw away any books, papers, or magazines. In fact, your collection of printed materials can become more accessible than ever before. Would you like to be able to search EVERY word in EVERY book and in EVERY magazine in your collection at once? You can do that if you digitize, but don’t try doing that with paper!
Digital libraries consume a fraction of a square inch on a computer someplace. The amount of space required is so small that we can ignore it completely. Compare that to the hundreds of dollars worth of bookshelves required to store the same information in books and magazines and filing cabinets. Of course, with digital libraries, you will always want to have backup copies stored in multiple locations to protect against a disaster of any kind. If you still have books in bookshelves, what protection do your books have from a fire or a burst water pipe in your home? Printed books and papers are easily damaged by disasters while proper storage of digital libraries can be safer and much more reliable than any paper-based libraries. A disaster in the home won’t destroy multiple backup copies of digital files that are stored “in the cloud” or on digital media at a friend’s or relative’s house. The same disaster will wreak havoc on your printed books and papers.
Next, digital libraries are easier to access wherever you are. Cloud-based storage is cheap these days, even if you are traveling. Want to look up something in a book at home when you are in a library, at a courthouse, at a genealogy meeting, or traveling in New Mexico in the motor home? If you have a digital library, you can access any book or document from an iPhone, iPad, or laptop computer, wherever you are. Try doing that with a paper book sitting on the shelf back home!
An acronym that is becoming well-known amongst computer owners is L.O.C.K.S.S. That is, “Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.”
In summary, digitizing your books, magazines, and papers provides:
- a reduction in storage space requirements
- a reduction in expenses
- quick search capabilities
- easy access from anywhere, anytime
- increased protection of your valuable books and papers due to multiple backups stored in multiple locations
What’s wrong with this picture? Why isn’t everyone digitizing?
Obviously, a big reason why people are not digitizing is inertia. It is too “difficult” to get started. Next is the perceived lack of need. Many people don’t yet realize the advantages.
In my case, I am not just digitizing genealogy materials. Instead, I am attempting to digitize EVERY PIECE OF PAPER of importance in my life. I haven’t yet finished the backlog of thousands of pieces of paper from years past that are still in my old filing cabinets but I am making progress towards that goal. All NEW paper received in the past 5 or 6 years has been digitized and the original paper has been shredded and recycled.
I now use a sheetfeed scanner when opening my mail. I scan any bills or other documents that seem important, and then I throw away or recycle the paper. I save the results to a private file space in the cloud (and sometimes to Evernote, depending upon the document in question) so that each image is available within seconds on all my computers: desktop computer, laptop computer, and iPhone. With the use of proper keywords, I can find and retrieve any document within seconds.
I once stored the Winnebago motor home for a few weeks in a facility in Jacksonville, Florida. As I was filling out the paperwork in the storage facility’s office, I was asked for a photocopy of the insurance papers to prove that the motor home was insured. Insurance papers? Here? Now? I don’t carry a hard copy of the insurance papers with me. Yet with digital storage, the answer was easy. I took my cell phone out of my pocket, opened Evernote, and entered “winnebago insurance.” An image of my insurance policy appeared on the screen within seconds since I had previously scanned the policy when I received it in the mail. (The image was stored on Evernote’s servers but was easily retrieved to the cell phone.)
The Jacksonville storage facility manager wanted a hard copy of the policy. Obviously, he has not yet converted to an all-digital life. In the cell phone version of Evernote, I pressed EMAIL and then asked the manager for his email address. As he told me, I entered the address into Evernote and then pressed SEND. The storage facility manager received the copy of the insurance policy a second or two later in his email in-box. Total time consumed? A minute or two. That’s much easier than trying to obtain a copy of a piece of paper that is back home.
Of course, the storage facility manager had to print the insurance policy on his local printer if he wanted a hard copy. Had it been me, I wouldn’t have printed it.
How to Digitize
Digitizing your collection doesn’t mean that you must physically do the work yourself. In fact, there are other solutions.
Anyone with a Kindle, iPad, or other “tablet” computer has access to tens of thousands of books that are already available as digital downloads. This includes hundreds of genealogy books. In many cases, digital books are cheaper than physical books because of the reduced costs of printing, warehousing, and shipping.
Google Books at http://books.google.com has thousands of genealogy and local history books available. Those that are out of copyright can be downloaded and saved on any computer or saved to an online service or to disks or flash drives. Downloading out-of-copyright books is free of charge.
The Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org has millions of out-of-copyright books available at any moment, including genealogy books. The same non-profit also has images of the U.S. Census records although those images are not indexed. The Internet Archive never charges for any of its services.
Archive CD Books USA had thousands of genealogy and history books but has since been shut down. However, most of the books are still available through the company’s former partners and dealers at prices that are much cheaper than buying printed reprints, probably cheaper than buying the bookshelves required to store printed copies of the same books. Start at http://www.archivecdbooksusa.com/ to find these e-books.
Heritage Books sells thousands of ebooks on line and on CD-ROM disks. More “books” are being added to the list every month. Details can be found at https://heritagebooks.com/.
Genealogical Publishing Company continues to sell books printed on paper but of the company’s newer releases are also available as digital downloads. Start at https://genealogical.com/ to find the many ebooks,.
Ancestry.com‘s classic book, The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, is available online at https://wiki.rootsweb.com/wiki/index.php?title=The_Source:_A_Guidebook_to_American_Genealogy while the Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources is available at https://wiki.rootsweb.com/wiki/index.php?title=Red_Book:_American_State,_County,_and_Town_Sources. These thick reference books used to be very expensive as printed books and consumed a lot of space on the shelf. Now they are both available online to everyone FREE of charge, and they are updated frequently. They now require no shelf space at all, not even in my compact motor home.
I suspect that we will see even more magazines and books become available as digital downloads every year. As paper, printing, handling, and postage charges continue to rise and electronic publishing expenses continue to drop, I believe we will see fewer and fewer printed books and magazines become available every year. It won’t happen for a few years yet, but someday electronic publishing will become the norm, and printing books on paper will only be performed by a very few small, “boutique” publishers.
For those books you have already purchased in print, you can find a number of services that will digitize them for you at reasonable prices. I have used One-Dollar-Scan at http://1dollarscan.com/ and was pleased with the results. You package your books and send them to the company in California, where they charge an average of one dollar per book to scan the books and create indexed PDF files. You then download the files from the company’s servers. You can store the digitized books on your laptop computer or flash drive or external hard drive or cloud-based backup service or even in your tablet computer, as you wish. Of course, you are encouraged to make multiple copies and store them in multiple places for backup purposes.
At one dollar per book, digitizing books is probably cheaper than buying another bookshelf for physical books!
For scanning of individual pieces of paper, you can find many services that will do the work for you for modest fees. You place the loose pieces of paper into an envelope and mail them to the scanning service. Some of the services even have extra-cost options, such as indexing the papers or performing OCR conversion to text.
You can also use your “smartphone” as a scanner. See my earlier article, The Best Portable Scanner, at https://blog.eogn.com/2016/12/16/the-best-portable-scanner/.
Indeed, technology is changing the world around us. We have options today that did not exist even ten years ago. We can now carry an entire personal library of thousands of books in a Winnebago or even in a flash drive that is in your pocket. We can also easily access thousands of books, magazines, and individual papers from an iPhone or Android phone that has Internet access. Doing so is easier and cheaper than storing books published on paper.
The “paperless office” no longer needs to be a joke. The capability is here today if we are smart enough to use it. You can have a paperless office and a paperless home.
The next time you think about purchasing a book or magazine, please ask yourself, “Paper or plastic?” In this case, “plastic” refers to a CD or DVD disk. Probably the best option is “download.” Plan for the future: make sure you will always have physical room and easy access to whatever information you choose. Downsize!