Feb 18, 2021

Should Government Offices Store Paper Documents? or Digital Images?

I received an email message a while ago from a newsletter reader asking about an experience she had with a county records clerk. I answered her in email but decided to also publish my reply here in this newsletter because I suspect her experience is going to become more common with every passing year.

I deleted the name of the city, county, and state because I believe this is a nationwide and even international issue. It could have happened anywhere. Let’s focus on the issues, not on the location:

“Hi, Mr. Eastman

“I wanted to share this with you. I am researching genealogy for a friend of mine. He told me that his parents were married in {city and state deleted} and he wanted proof of that. He did not have any more information than that.

“Today, I contacted the County Clerk of that location to verify that they were married there. The clerk found the record. I asked how much would it would cost to obtaine a certified copy. She said that ‘I will mail the original to you.’ I said, ‘The original?’ She replied, ‘Yes, we do not keep original documents anymore. We scan them into the computer system and mail them to the nearest family member.’

“I just wonder how many genealogy seekers know this about {city deleted} or is it this way throughout {state deleted}? I thought I would let you know about this.”

My reply:

That is still unusual but not unheard of. I have heard that a number of other places do the same thing.

All government offices are cost-constrained. Buying filing cabinets to keep millions of pieces of paper is expensive. However, creating new buildings or expanding present buildings to provide space for all the filing cabinets, along with the required climate controls (heating, air conditioning, and humidity controls), building maintenance, and salaries of people to maintain the place are cost-prohibitive… always costing millions of taxpayer dollars. In addition, storing paper is a poor method as it is sensitive to fires, floods, mold, insect damage, theft, and other problems.

Storing digital copies (with backup copies stored in second or even third locations) is more reliable, safer, easier to handle (such as giving copies to those who ask), and is always much cheaper for the taxpayers.

My guess is that, within 25 or 50 years, no government office will be storing paper, except for a very few exceptions of important historical documents, probably kept in a local museum.

Just think… if that marriage certificate had already been digitized in the past, when you recently talked to the clerk, he or she could have asked, “What is your email address?” and you then would have received your copy within 15 or 20 seconds. Faster, more convenient, and much cheaper for the taxpayers of the county.

– Dick Eastman

What is your opinion? Should government offices keep purchasing filing cabinets, expanding their buildings or making new buildings for their archives, and pay for the “required climate controls (heating, air conditioning, and humidity controls), building maintenance, and salaries of people to maintain the place?”