Concerns about hoarding seem to have become a fascination to Americans in recent years.  Consider that A&E squeezed 6 seasons (41 episodes) out of its show Hoarders.  In 2012, Melinda Beck wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about digital hoarding.  She cites experts who suggest that the accumulation of digital files verges into hoarding when it is disorganized and interferes with other relationships and responsibilities.  She estimates that people only use about 20% of what they save.

While physical hoarding has signs that may be recognized, digital hoarding is harder to recognize.  I come across a lot of people who are determined to pare down their stacks and drawers of paper — in favor of scanning these same items and keeping them in digital form, FOREVER.  I’ll confess, I have taken to scanning magazine articles and saving them as tagged PDF files rather than filing the print version.  Being able to have them as files that can be searched using the index function of Windows Explorer and that are fully keyword searchable makes them more useful to me, and I have developed a system for filing them that makes them findable.  But I also try to weed out my electronic files of items that have exceeded their usefulness just as I do my paper files.

It’s not only people — governments are getting into the digitizing craze.  The National Archives and Records Administration has as one of its strategic goals “Make Access Happen,” and according to a blog by David Ferriero, one of the methods of accomplishing this is to digitize records.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that a new law takes effect in Pennsylvania today that will allow counties to store court records electronically rather than requiring paper or microfilm record copies.  They have not yet finalized the requisite standards and procedures, but soon enough, PA courts will no longer be required to maintain human-readable court records (i.e., records that can be read without the use of a machine).  The article touts the cost savings this will bring to the counties because of decreased physical storage requirements.

I like the increased access that comes with electronic records.  But my fear is that the rush to digitize ignores the costs of digital preservation.  The Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands has a report on the Costs of Digital Preservation that breaks the costs down in this way:

  • creation of a digital repository — physical space, hardware, and software
  • personnel
  • preservation — software to guarantee the authenticity of records plus efforts required to migrate and/or emulate records
  • public services — training, etc.

In his famous 1995 article for Scientific American, Jeff Rothenberg warns, “digital information lasts forever – or five years, whichever comes first.”  So I guess my main concern is that we not put everything into our digital “file cabinets” and then think we can walk away.  There’s still a lot of work to be done to maintain these files — and there will be costs.  And just as there can be disasters that compromise paper records, electronic records are also vulnerable.  Take as an extreme example this Dropbox disaster that was reported last week.  (Spoiler alert: this story will make you want to start keeping photo albums on your coffee table rather than in the cloud!)  As with all things in life, decisions regarding how to maintain records should be made after thoughtful review and with careful analysis of the costs and benefits.