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Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:19 am

More floppies in a shoebox

How should the state deal with dead documents?



Having found itself unable to solve the state’s big problems, legislators the other day took up a small one – the agreement to spend $2.4 million over five years for space in a converted furniture store in which to store records of the Department of Human Services. I know nothing about that lease as a lease, and very little more about the proper internment of dead paper. But I do know it matters to Springfield. Any government center is not only a town of paper-pushers but becomes, in time, a town of paper-storers; the state of Illinois alone leases a dozen buildings for document storage in the capital city.

Illinois once showed the nation how to save official documents of value. The State Archives was set up in 1921 as the depository of Illinois government records of permanent administrative, legal or historical research value, and in 1938 was moved into a state-of-the-art fireproof, theft-proof building built for the purpose south of the Statehouse. (The building also was budget-proof; the feds paid for it as part of the New Deal.) Today we dump such stuff in old furniture stores.

Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park spoke for Everyman when he asked why not just digitize all those files. “Digitize” – a magic word. Surely it wouldn’t cost more to scan the records than the state will be paying to store them? Unfortunately, it almost certainly would cost more, if the job is done competently. Experts in the field calculate that it costs as much to convert a typical paper document into digital form as it does to store it as-is for 20 years.

Reading ink printed on paper requires only an educated human eye. Reading bits on a disk requires software, and software becomes unusable when the companies that make it go bust or stop supporting it. Documents thus stored become unreadable, no more useful than the shoebox of five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies tucked into the closet that are crammed with things we know we know but can no longer remember.

Good quality paper, stored properly, lasts hundreds of years. Electronic documents – popular myth to the contrary – do not. Data decay when storage media rot or magnetic charges dissipate, so what has been stored needs to be periodically re-stored by “migrating” data from one digital platform to a new one. Any librarian old enough to remember card catalogs has been through the process more than once already. The State Journal-Register reports that the approximately 700,000 images and documents containing road construction information that IDOT recently digitized had already been “saved” once, onto microfilm in the 1990s.

Then there is data safety to consider. Were the Russians to try to hack the state’s voter records on paper they would have had to spend weeks in the basements of Illinois county seats. Trust me, I’ve done it; Lincoln’s body in its sarcophagus is less safe from tampering than those records would be.

Can citizens (whose documents they are, remember) assume that the state of Illinois will create digitized records as legible as originals, monitor them rigorously for data degradation, maintain the software used to create them and migrate all those records to new storage systems when the old ones become obsolete – and do this for decades? If you believe that, I’ve got a nice warehouse I’d like to sell you.

Seventy-nine years ago, at the state archives building dedication, the president of the Society of American Archivists told those gathered that “especially important developments are promised in the reduction of the mass of public archives.” And still the boxes pile up. Yes, more streamlined management can generate fewer documents, but that just nibbles at the problem around the edges. The safest, most durable medium remains ink printed onto acid-free paper and kept in a dry cool place safe from fire. However, the more persuasive argument in favor of typing records onto acid-free paper may be that leaving things lying in around in a box is about as sophisticated as the state can get when it comes to documents storage – and maybe as sophisticated as it needs to be, if the box is kept in a climate-controlled site.

Thus we arrive, as we do after wandering around so many government issues, back at a familiar intersection. Things are more complicated than they seem. Nothing done well is cheap. Simple solutions inevitably cause complicated new problems. The only thing we can say for certain is that digitizing public records will create profit opportunities for private contractors, now and forever. That, I suspect, is the real motive for this administration’s urgent desire to turn a small problem into a big one.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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