Should Archivists Go Paperless?

Paper archives are dangerous. For the past several weeks, I've been standing knee-deep in paper untouched by human hands for decades, sorting through decaying files and strange pamphlets, breathing so much dust that I cough all night afterwards. It's even worse for archivists and librarians who work with materials that are older than a century; they report that spores and mold on materials give them headaches, short-term memory loss, diminished lung capacity, and severe allergies.

Back in 1994, an archivist working with century-old materials in an antique schoolhouse wrote an e-mail to a conservation listserv that sounded so ominous it could practically have been the introduction to a Stephen King novel. "For several months I sorted through water-damaged ledgers and artifacts. Many were covered with a black soot-like dust," she wrote. "After a few months, I noticed I was losing my balance, my short-term memory was failing, and I began dropping things."

Years later, after her lung capacity had dropped 36 percent and her memory was damaged permanently, a doctor finally diagnosed her condition. She'd been poisoned by mold on the archival materials she'd devoted her life to preserving.

A letter published in Nature in 1978 points out that old books and papers actually develop infections, colloquially called "foxing," that look like a "yellowish-brown patch" on the page. That patch, explain the letter writers, is actually a lesion caused by fungus growing on the book "under unfavorable conditions."

Today most libraries recommend that conservationists working in archives with old materials and books wear high-efficiency particulate air filtering masks. My archival adventures this month don't involve foxing, or brain-damaging mold. I'm preserving an historical paper trail that's too recent to have gone toxic.

In fact, I'm in the odd position of trying to organize the papers of an organization, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, whose entire mission since 1980 has been to promote the ethical uses of technology, and to build a prosocial, paperless future. With all the dangers of paper archives, and all the love for computers at the CPSR, why bother to preserve the organization's papers at all?

Why not, as one member of the CPSR asked me, just scan everything and create a digital version of CPSR history? There are million reasons why not, but all of them boil down to two things: scale and redundancy.

Over the past quarter century, the CPSR has accumulated 65 crates of papers and nine tall metal filing cabinets full of records. Some of the papers are cracking with age; some are old faxes or personal letters on onionskin paper; some are pamphlets or zines; some are poster-size programs; others are little, folded stacks of handwritten notes. There are photographs, floppy disks, VHS tapes, and even a reel of film.

Even if we had all the resources of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that is scanning books onto the Web at a rapid clip, the CPSR scanning project would take weeks. After all, we aren't scanning regular papers and books. We have so many kinds of archival material that we'd need specialists who knew how to scan them properly without damaging the originals.

Plus, how would we label each item we'd scanned? Every single one would need to be put into a portable, open file format and labeled with data by hand to identify it. That's a project that could take months if done by a team of pros and years if it's being done by volunteers. So part of creating a paper archive is simply a matter of pragmatism. It's easier to preserve history on paper.

More important, though, we need a paper backup copy of our history. I love online archives as much as the next geek, but what happens when the servers blow out? When we stop having enough power to run data storage centers for progressive nonprofits? And even if digital disasters don't strike, history is preserved through redundancy. The more copies we have of the CPSR's history, in multiple formats, the more likely it is that generations to come will remember how a brave group of computer scientists in the 1980s spoke out against the Star Wars missile defense system so loudly that the world listened.

When it comes to preserving history, every digital archive should have a paper audit trail.


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