Why "scan n’ dump" is a terrible idea

by Sally J.

There’s controversy brewing in Tuscaloosa.

(Never thought I’d open a blog entry with that sentence, but life is full of surprises, ennit?)

I read on Dear MYRTLE’s blog about plans in Tuscaloosa to scan historic ledgers and dump the originals. Myrt linked to an article in the University of Alabama student paper, where I read this snippet (Bobo is Circuit Clerk Magaria Bobo):


“We’ll scan them on a disk, and at that point we’ll destroy them,” Bobo said. “They’ll be in better shape to read after being scanned because the paper they’re on now is so delicate because it’s so old.”

Oh, dear.

Read the DatelineAlabama article here.
Read Myrtle’s post here.

First of all, let’s give the clerks of court credit for operating the best they can under difficult circumstances. These folks have a legal mandate to preserve records, but little financial support to carry out their responsibilities.

I know how mightily they sometimes have to struggle. Back in 1997, I worked with a group of Wisconsin Registers in Probate who were extremely dedicated to records preservation even though they had to fight for every dime. (More on that project — including an excerpt from the manual I created — in the next post).

Is scan n’ dump ever OK?
For government records, the answer is no…at least not yet. Not until we solve the problem of long term digital preservation. And not until local government officials are given a decent budget and the right equipment to check data regularly and migrate records every 3-5 years as the software changes. Digitization is great for increased access, but it doesn’t save you money in the long run.

In Tuscaloosa, for example, the clerk is forced to keep crumbling historic ledgers in a hot “moldy” attic. If her budget can’t provide a single decent storage room, where is the money going to come from to handle electronic records?

For family snapshots (especially the extra ones that will never make it into an album) I say go for it. Just be sure to offer the unwanted prints to family members before you toss anything. And remember to respect age and scarcity.

On the other hand… film n’ dump can be a safe choice.
Black and white (silver) microfilm is expected to last hundreds and hundreds of years. If you choose to film n’ dump, be sure to conduct rigorous quality checks of the film. I’ve heard nightmare stories about sloppy filming projects.

Next up: Advice on digitization that I wrote back in 1997. For better or worse, it’s still mostly valid.
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