Why Digital Archives Beat Paper Every Time

As we’ve talked about RuskinARC to various communities across the country, there are a couple of themes that keep popping up as reasons for not going digital and keeping architecture surveys and preservation reporting on paper. We firmly believe that all of that thinking is hogwash and will set you up poorly if you follow that advice. As a community service, we will use this article to dispel these ruinous myths.

Myth 1: Paper is Permanent

One common misconception is that paper is somehow more permanent than an ephemeral digital document that lives in something called “the cloud”. Paper is solid, real and we have paper documents dating back a very long time. Paper is how it’s always been done, so it must be more permanent than digital.

Go tell it to the librarian at Alexandria.

The simple fact is, neither paper nor the media that digital documents are stored on (hard drives, disk drives, etc.) are permanent but digital documents have one advantage paper can’t touch; it’s easily duplicated. You can make 20 copies of a digital document without loss of fidelity and store it in 20 different places on the globe. Lose one, lose ten and it doesn’t matter, you still have it. It’s also no longer very expensive to store all those copies. We back up RuskinARC’s complete database including all images and documents to a redundant backup service that keeps the multiple copies for you every night. Monthly cost for us for all projects on RuskinARC: about $3.00.

Copy a paper document 20 times and you eventually get an unreadable document. Find 20 places on earth to store it? Very expensive and not likely in any case. Most of your important documents are currently in one place and if you lose them, they’re gone forever. Scan them in, make them digital and then back them up online.

Myth 2: Digital file formats go out of date

This one has some truth to it; ever hear of Lotus 1-2-3? It was a spreadsheet program back in the very early days of computers but has since been discontinued. But old file formats never really die, they just retire. Files in that format are easy to open in the latest LibreOffice or Microsoft Excel. It’s very hard to find a file format that would be impossible to open today.

Not only that, there are a few formats that are designed to always be available until the end of time, sort of the archival quality version of digital documents. For text, it’s Unicode, a format designed around binary itself, the computer’s most basic language, and able to store characters from over 100 different languages. For images, TIFF is the langua-franca, a format that is open to any basic program to interpret with very high quality.

More importantly, when you have digital, you can have paper any time you need it in any format you’d like it. Just print it out and there it is. When you have paper, you have only paper, in that format and that’s it. This is why Google and Project Gutenberg is working so hard to get out of print books into a digital format and why the US Government is working so hard to digitize public data.

Now what’s out of date?

Myth 3: Accessing digital archives are harder than accessing paper archives

Many people feel very comfortable and safe knowing that all of their paper documents are filed away in a cabinet or shelf somewhere, alphabetized and sorted with a nice card catalog that will tell you exactly where everything is. Your computer files are probably all over the place, some in a Documents folder, some in a Projects folder, most all over the Desktop. Finding that document you were looking at yesterday usually involves opening Word and hoping it’s still in the Recent Documents menu. So paper obviously wins, right?

Well, in this instance, it probably does but only because when it comes to paper, you already have a system. More than likely, it’s a system that you inherited that was already running and you just needed to learn the rules. When it comes to your computer, you have to organize it all yourself and, let’s face it, many of us don’t.

But the key isn’t the medium, it’s the system. If you have a good system in place to store all of your digital information (and we’ll point to RuskinARC here for obvious reasons), digital beats paper every time. If you’ve ever misplaced a paper document and then wished there was a search engine that could tell you where it is, you understand the power of having it all on the computer. Once it’s on the computer, it’s also always on the computer. Any good system will have an easy way to export your information and documents at the click of a button into a format that will be easy to import into any other computer program. That system will also have powerful reports and insight into that information that you could never easily get from a stack of papers.

Hopefully this clears up why we at RuskinARC think digital archives are the way to go. I didn’t even touch on the ability to password protect your archives, setting up a public website, and other benefits of having your information at your command on a computer. But once you have a good system, safe backups and the ability to change your information into any format you need, it’s clear that moving to RuskinARC from static paper forms will save time and money over the long term for you.

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