Home » post » For God’s Sake, Stop Digitizing Paper

Our mission

Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

For God’s Sake, Stop Digitizing Paper

A recent ALA publication reports on preservation activities in libraries and questions whether libraries are devoting too much of their limited resources to digitizing paper. This fits what we have long argued here at FGI that FDLP priorities should be on preserving the vast amount of born digital government information rather than on digitizing and discarding our unique, valuable, historical paper collections. From the report:

The respondents’ focus on book and paper digitization raises questions about where digitization resources are being allocated and whether they address the most pressing preservation needs.

It is well-documented in numerous publications that there is an urgent need for digitization of audiovisual (AV) materials in order to preserve them, yet the focus of digitization efforts, at least among responding institutions, seems to be on materials that are arguably not as rapidly deteriorating and certainly not at risk for format obsolescence.

FY2014 Preservation Statistics Report. Annie Peterson, Holly Robertson, and Nick Szydlowski. American Library Association. August 10, 2015. [PDF]

The above paragraph cites a 2014 article by Joshua Ranger “For God’s Sake, Stop Digitizing Paper” in which he makes a very compelling argument that focusing on digitizing print resources is actually bad for preservation.

Frankly, I think we need to consider a moratorium on this. We should agree to stop digitizing paper and other stable formats for a set period because, in a way, it is bad for preservation.

Ranger explains that, from a preservation point of view, most print is stable and is not at risk of loss in the short term but Audio Visual information is. He says that we have a 10-15 year window to reformat magnetic media before it becomes too degraded or too expensive to save at any scale. Waiting will leave us with a preservation problem in which both the effort and cost will be unaffordable.

Ranger’s article is short and well worth reading. He touches on why we choose to digitize paper (often it is not for preservation at all but for access and because “it’s a pain to store and manage”). He also notes that our current strategies make libraries look behind the times and make it harder for libraries to secure preservation funding.

Though Ranger is primarily talking about archival audio-visual material, the same argument can be made for born-digital government information. Without prompt action, we will lose a lot of this information as it is taken offline and discarded or altered by agencies that are focused on day-to-day e-government, not on long-term preservation. FDLP libraries should be putting our limited resources into preserving the content that is actually at risk of loss (born-digital government information) rather than on digitizing and discarding our paper documents that do not pose a short term preservation risk.

Those interested in preserving born-digital information may be interested in this article about how to talk to library and university administrators and external financial donors about funding:

and this workshop and document:

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.