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Jan 7, 2023

(+) Which is Better for Long-Term Storage of Records: Paper, Microfilm or Digital?

Subtitle: Unlike Paper and Microfilm, Digital Documents Can Last Forever

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

“Conventional wisdom” amongst genealogists, historians, and archivists states that digital media is a poor method of storing data for decades or for centuries. This “conventional wisdom” claims that the only practical method of storing information for many years is to do so on paper or on microfilm/microfiche. There’s only one problem: “conventional wisdom” is wrong!

To understand the challenges involved, let’s first review the processes used by those who espouse “conventional wisdom:”

Paper

In the past few hundred years, paper has been the storage method of choice. Indeed, paper has worked well. We do have documents still readable today that were written in the 1700s and some in the 1600s. Even some medieval books written in the Middle Ages still survive and are readable, assuming you are trained in the handwriting and language used. On a recent trip to England, I saw a contemporary copy of the Magna Carta, written in 1215, that was still readable. However, these documents were not written on paper. Instead, the oldest documents were written on parchment, which is made of sheepskin, or the finer-quality vellum parchment, made of calf or goatskin. Its complicated manufacture means that parchment was usually reserved for important documents. In fact, paper was rare in the Middle Ages. Most surviving written documents of those times were written on parchment, not paper.

By the 1700s, paper was generally made from cotton, linen, or hemp. Production became more common, and large paper factories appeared in the 1800s. The manufacturing processes of those times did not use acids. As a result, the high-quality paper lasted for a long time. Newspapers are usually printed on the most inexpensive paper available at the time. Many copies of Thomas Paine’s newspapers from the American Revolution have survived because even the cheapest paper of 1776 was made from cotton, linen, or hemp, without the use of acids. 

Inks also varied but were generally of high quality. The Chinese invented ink 5000 years ago, using a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil, thickened with gelatin from animal skins and musk. By the 1700s, varnish-like ink made of soot, turpentine, and walnut oil was created specifically for the printing press.

The paper and inks of 300, 200, or even only 100 years ago will last a long time if stored in locations where they have not been subject to major temperature and humidity changes. Indeed, museums of today have thousands of printed documents that are several centuries old. 

Paper and ink manufacturing have both changed dramatically in the past century or so. Most of today’s paper is made from wood. The wood is converted to pulp, a concentrated mixture of fibers suspended in water. Most chemical pulp is made using the Kraft process, which is performed by pressure-cooking the material in a mixture of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide. Heat is applied, and three chemical components of the wood, cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin then combine together and eventually result in sheets of paper.

A more detailed explanation of modern paper making methodologies may be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper.

Today’s process uses a lot of acid to make paper. As the years go by, the acids will eventually cause the paper to self-destruct. The number of years varies, depending on the quality of the original paper and the storage conditions involved. The paper you use in your laser printer will probably will not last 100 years. In fact, if not stored properly, it may not even last 25 years. 

As short a lifespan as that may be, paper is really not the biggest problem. Ink, or what we use in place of ink, will probably not even last as long as the paper it is printed on!

All paper acts as an “ink blotter.” When ink is pressed onto the paper, much of the ink is absorbed into the paper. The result is a more-or-less permanent combining of ink and paper. This “blotting” process is critical to long-term storage. While the paper might last for centuries, the document will be useless if the ink fades. The absorption of ink into the paper is critical to the readability of archived documents. 

Let’s examine the laser printer that you use. In fact, it doesn’t use ink at all! It uses toner: tiny bits of plastic. Toner isn’t applied by pressure but is “fused” onto the surface of the paper, first by electrostatic charges and then by heat. The information to be printed is translated into bit mapped charges of the opposite polarity on a special drum in the printer. The toner is attracted to the charged areas, where it is transferred to paper. The toner is then “set”, usually by heat.

Toner is not absorbed into the paper; it is “stuck” on the surface instead. Over time, bits of toner will lose the electrostatic “stickiness” and will fall off. The plastic bits that do remain will also fade. The life expectancy of printed documents made by laser printers is unknown, mainly because laser printers have only been around for a relatively short time. No manufacturer of laser printers is willing to make predictions about the life expectancy of printed documents. However, almost all will agree that it will be less than 100 years. In fact, it might be less than 25 years. The problem is not with the paper but with the toner. The toner is not absorbed but is only attached or “stuck” to the paper. The toner absolutely will fade and/or fall off. The only question is, “When?”

The same is true for office copiers and the high-speed printers used to produce small numbers of printed books. All use toner. 

“Wait a minute,” you say. “I don’t use a laser and toner, I use an inkjet printer. Surely there is ink there!” True, inkjets operate a bit more like traditional inks, and the sprayed-on ink is absorbed into the paper. There are almost as many printer inks as there are types of printers. Most inkjet inks are either water-based or solvent-based. Water and solvents don’t last long in storage. If you had an inkjet printer ten years ago, look at a document you printed then. Note that it is already fading. It will be unreadable in another decade or two. 

The more expensive pigment ink can be applied to a wider variety of surfaces and will respond better to different temperatures, outdoor conditions, and fleeting time. Pigment inks will probably last 50 years or more. There is but one problem: the more expensive pigment inks are rare and are never found in inkjet printers designed for use in the home.

So how can you produce paper documents on your computer for long-term storage? The quick answer is that you cannot. Ten to perhaps fifty years is all that you can expect, and even fifty is questionable. We can, however, make recommendations with regards to prolonging the life of computer-generated documents for as long as possible:

    • Use acid-free papers (pH 7.5-8.5) that are better suited for documents intended to be stored for long periods e.g. wills, rather than normal laser paper and recycled papers (pH 4.0-5,5). You probably will not find such paper at your local office supply store, however. When you do find it, acid-free paper is expensive.

    • The documents should be stored in folders made of polypropylene or polyethylene rather than PVC.

    • Store the document in a climate-controlled facility with cool temperatures and low humidity. 

    • Even better, print your document on an offset press. These have long been the standard printing presses used by commercial printers everywhere. An offset press is a sophisticated printing machine designed to produce fine quality reproductions. It uses almost any kind of paper but requires proper inks for its operation. Offset presses are used almost exclusively in larger print shops and are not found in homes or in “overnight printing” services.

In summation, if you really want to preserve your paper documents for more than one hundred years, be prepared to spend a lot of money. Also, please realize that nothing you print on your own computer printer will last that long.

Microfilm

NOTE: For the remainder of this article, I will use the terms “microfilm” and “microfiche” interchangeably. They are simply minor variations of the same technology.

Microfilm first became popular in the 1930s and was seen as a method of reducing the amount of space required for the storage of documents. 

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