Myths of Digitization and Paper

I am not anti-digitization – I appreciate it. But there a lot of limitations and it seems people are largely unaware of them.

Recently I was listening to two librarians discuss their work in eScholarship at a university library. This is not a critique of them or their work. They themselves mentioned many limitations of digitization – the main one being accessibility and migration.

Over the past 10-15 years we have seen remarkable changes in technology. When I was in high school we used diskettes. In university we switched to CDs and then to USB keys. What did you do with the work you had saved to diskettes? Did you print it and save it on paper? Did you migrate it to another digital format? Did you make sure you had a computer with a disk drive so you could read it?

Myth 1: Digitization is a great method of preservation

Digitization is a helpful auxiliary to your paper records or print holdings. It reduces wear and tear on older print versions, such as that yearbook from 1912. Need to consult a thesis in a library far away? Being able to consult the digital version is very convenient.

The issue is making sure to migrate all your e-content when the technology changes…and becomes obsolete. Because it will. And migration will be expensive. The example I always hear is, “Remember ‘Word Perfect?’ Can you still access documents saved in that format?”

At their university, theses and dissertations are no longer printed and stored in the library. The version of record is electronic. They do get backed up – onto tape and stored off-site (seriously – microfilm is very stable). They are stored in PDF-A – that is the current archival quality technology. Operative word being “current.” So what happens when some new format comes out and our computers can no longer access PDF-As? Is their library prepared to spend a ton of money and time migrating all its theses and dissertations?

I wonder why this decision was made, instead of continuing to print them and using digitization as an auxiliary medium. Sounds to me like digitization for digitization’s sake.

Digital formats are not that stable. Acid-free paper (not newsprint) is remarkably stable, as is microfilm. The two most stable media for long-term preservation…and we are moving away from them. Smart.

Myth 2: We’ll save space and money by digitizing everything

Creating born-digital records is one thing. Digitizing paper records is very expensive.

Myth 3: Paper is a fire hazard

Digital media can succumb to fire, too. Use them to back up important paper records and store them in a separate place.

Myth 4: Paper can get wet

So can computers. And while wet paper documents can be salvaged, I don’t think electronic media is that flexible. We had a flood at the Archives in September. When paper documents get wet, the main issue is making sure the ink doesn’t run. So you freeze them to stop the ink from running. And then you freeze-dry them to remove the water (this prevents the paper from getting crinkly).

Myth 5: Print versions waste trees

The “paperless office” is an oxymoron. We actually use more paper now, often from printing everything out, or from using more paper than necessary to get a job done. Case in point: the town clerk where I grew up used to type out vehicle registrations on little slips of paper. Then she switched to typing them on a computer and printing them out. I really don’t need a full sheet of paper to prove my car is registered. What a waste.