Paper vs. Electronic: The Not-So-Final Battle

A common inquiry I receive from Smithsonian staff is whether it is better to keep their files in electronic or paper format.  The best answer to this question is "it depends."  There are several factors to consider.

1)      How long do the files need to be kept?

Paper files, especially when accumulated over a long period of time, require a lot of physical storage space, but if the space is cool and dry, little needs to be done to preserve and maintain them in the long-term.  Electronic files generally require little space, but must be regularly reviewed to determine if they need to be migrated to new media or converted to a new file format to ensure they can be accessed in the future.

Jeanne Benas, by Strauss, Richard, 1990, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 90-877-11A.
2)       Does one format have more value than the other?

A common example of one format having more value is documents containing signatures.  Signatures are often proof of an agreement or testimony.  Traditionally, they have been handwritten on paper documents.  These paper documents with original signatures are generally necessary for ensuring the authenticity of a signature and are therefore more valuable than a scanned version of the document.  The technology surrounding digital signatures, however, allows for the electronic file to ensure authenticity and a printed copy is not as valuable.

3)      Is one format easier to use?

In the 21st century, most documents are created electronically and some just don't translate well into a printed format.  All sorts of reports and even the data tables can be printed from a database, but printouts just can't be used as efficiently and the database itself can.  Another example is a website.  A printout does not allow a user to click on links or even give any indication of where the link goes. Not to mention the audio and video elements of a website do not translate at all in a printout.

The opposite can also be true.  It is not uncommon for many different electronic files to be printed and compiled into a single printed document, such as a publication.  A user could identify all of the electronic files and then attempt to read them in the appropriate order, but it would be easier just to look at the paper version.

Atlas Computer Exhibit
4)      In what format are the majority of the records already?

There can be value in having all related records in the same format (paper or electronic), but scanning or printing on a large-scale is time-consuming and potentially expensive.  It is often best to choose the format that will require the least amount of printing or scanning.  A cost-benefit analysis should always be done prior to converting files to a new format.  Leaving existing files as is and documenting which files are paper and which are electronic may be a reasonable alternative.

In some cases, there may be significant benefit to maintaining files in both formats.  One should be designated as the official copy – the format that will be maintained and preserved – and the other as a reference copy.  An electronic version of a document may be suitable to maintain locally for quick reference or electronic searching while a paper version designated as the official copy could be stored off-site and retrieved if needed.  Electronic files designated as official copies may be printed to create a paper file that can be easily browsed.

The decision to maintain files in paper or electronically is not an easy one, but by thinking it through and asking the right questions, a solution can often be found that will meet everyone's needs.

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