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I’m not aware of any costings which have actually been done, but my gut feeling is that the balance digital vs. paper comes out in favour of digital. (By “paper” I’m including parchment, photographs etc too.)

1. The biggest single ongoing cost in any repository is staffing. A paper-based archives service has to run searchrooms for users to consult the materials, where users are supervised and security is ensured. So, paper-based repositories have to employ receptionists, searchroom assistants, relief staff to cover when other staff are away etc. A digital repository which makes its assets available over the web does not incur any of these costs.

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There is the issue of authenticity. The individual printing out the record often has a certain level of control over how that document is printed: fields or text can be removed from the printed version even if they remain in the digital original. Printing from spreadsheets usually results in the paper copy having only values and calculated data, not the formulas, or comments. This means that a paper document cannot necessarily be trusted as a full and complete equivalent of a digital record. Yet many people will allow the digital original to be deleted, or get lost, after the paper copy has been created. This may not be an issue for your home computer, but it may well be an issue in an organisation where different members of staff are printing different things.

How do you access paper? – need a supervised searchroom, really, with all the costs that entails. And BS5454 storage. Digital preservation is actually cheaper than paper, if properly handled.

Digital records have a feature not present in paper ones, namely behaviour. A paper document is a fixed item, but digital documents are sometimes interactive, and for some of these the behaviour is an essential part of the meaning. Spreadsheets are a good example.

Also, for some organisations there is a legal aspect. If the original document is digital, then it has to be preserved digitally.

Why preserving the written word is difficult

What’s called the Domesday Book was originally, back in 1086, a collection of hundreds of sheets of parchment, subsequently bound into two separate volumes called Little Domesday, which contained all the sheets for the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, and Great Domesday, which contained all the others under Norman rule at the time. It has been calculated that about 200 sheep would have been stunned and killed to create the parchment sheets for Great Domesday. The pelts were removed from the dead animals, soaked in lime, dehaired, then stretched out on a wooden frame so that they could be washed and scraped with a pumice block, to remove much grease and fat as possible. It was a long and careful job and the quality of the resulting work owed much to the skills of the craftsmen involved. The parchments for Domesday were very carefully prepared indeed.

But the Norman government did not leave the matter there. Read the rest of this entry »