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The merits of paper as an archival medium

17 April 2018

Yesterday I was presented with a trove of historical information.

An elderly gentleman, who is about to go into a retirement home, called me on Sunday and said he had a pile of documentation that he would like to pass on to me as he felt I am the one most qualified to make use of it.

What is in this pile of ring binders and lever-arch folders?

Well it's the history of our local airfield, dating right back to 1971.

Now 1971 might not seem like a long time ago to most people and in geological terms it's not -- being just a smidgen under half a century.

However, time has taken its toll on some of the documents, news clippings and hand-written notes. The paper has darkened and the ink faded.

Yet, despite this damage, 95% of the stuff is quite readable and I have to wonder whether any digital media would have fared so well.

I recall some time ago that I found a box of 5.25-inch floppy disks and was very disappointed that only about half of them could be read without errors, even though they were barely 20 years old.

Likewise, quite a few CDRs I burnt little more than 15 years ago are already showing signs of significant bit-rot, despite being stored in a clean, dry environment with little or no ambient light.

I suspect that any magnetic tape which had been written more than a few decades ago would also be suffering from physical distress as well as significant levels of print-through by now and chances of getting data off it would be next to zero.

Not only has digital media shown a rather poor resistance to the ravages of time to date, we also have the issue of the format and software used to write it and thus read it.

Anyone who found a trove of 8-inch hard-sectored disks these days would be very hard pressed to find a drive and a system with which to read them -- although they would at least be lucky enough to be dealing with a format that was pretty much immutable.

By comparison, anyone coming across an archive stored on 5.25-floppy disks might not be so lucky. Not only were these disks found in a myriad of different configurations (single-sided, single-density all the way up to double-sided quad-density) but the sector-sizes and numbering schemes were also wildly different between individual brands and models of computers.

Chances also are that the data stored on such disks might have been compressed with one of the utilities of the day -- such as LHARC or similar. Actually, to my surprise I have discovered that LHARC is still "a thing" and apparently the Japanese version of Windows 7 shipped with a utility for handling the LZH files created by this program.

But back to the pile of papers I have sitting before me.

The wonderful thing about paper is that it is pretty much technology agnostic.

If you've got eyes and can read -- paper will work for you and continue working for a very, very long time.

The only real compatibility issues I can see is that some of the hand-written notes are hard to read, not because of any failure of the ink/paper technology but because they've been written in a very scruffy cursive script that is simply hard to make out.

So now my job is to digitise this mound of dead tree flesh and ink for posterity.

Most of the stuff is on A4-sized sheets or smaller so that will be quite easy. However, there are some quite large maps that I'll have to photograph at megapixel resolution and that'll take a bit more work -- so as to make sure all the wrinkles are smoothed out and the lighting is as good as can be achieved.

As for the content of this documentation... well I've hardly scratched the surface but I have discovered that the Tokoroa Airfield has a very chequered past. Throughout the years it has been an object of debate between the council of the day, the population of the district and those who've used it. There has been little harmony between those parties and it is clear that councils will be councils -- regardless of the year and who holds the individual positions. It's like a disease that quickly afflicts anyone who dares take up a position within the septic environment that prevails inside.

Of course as custodian of this archive, I have a responsibility to ensure that it is preserved and protected for the future. It is almost certain that these are the sole copies of many of the documents it contains. Over the years, "ownership" of the airfield has been held by councils that have been reformed, renamed and restructured so that they appear to have lost most of their own copies of the documentation and the original airfield owner, New Zealand Forest Products is no longer an entity.

The big question is, how does one go about ensuring that these documents will survive another 50 years or more?

Well storing the digital files on a USB Flash drive will only be good for (so I'm told) about a decade. Optical media seems to have vary much fallen from favour of late -- in fact many new PCs don't even have DVD/R/WR drives any more. The cloud is an obvious option but then again, cloud providers come and go and the loss of login credentials for a cloud account can mean the loss of all the data stored there.

Perhaps the *best* way to preserve this stuff is to print out the scans onto more paper, using a high-quality ink -- which presents yet another problem...

It's been my experience that the ink used by most inkjet printers has very poor long-term stability and tends to fade over time whilst also being very susceptible to the effects of water or dampness.

Before anyone says "laser printer", I've had other problems when archiving stuff that has been laser-printed. The toner can become hygroscopic and this causes it to stick to anything which is in contact with it -- often the back of the adjacent page. Archiving laser-printed documents would require good control of heat and humidity.

I'd love to hear from readers as to what they'd recommend for a long-term, low cost, low maintenance form of document storage. What method will provide at least another half-century of long-term storage without the need to "refresh" digital media or invest in expensive/cumbersome methods of temperature and humidity control for hardcopy?

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