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Productive on Paper: Record Keeping and Archiving

Productive on Paper: Record Keeping and Archiving

Productive on Paper: Record Keeping and Archiving


"Paper can make the abstract tangible in a way digital devices don't"

—Eric Weiner

Paper is the best medium for archiving records and keeping you productive. Two key parts of being productive are the ability to easily access information and even keeping that information secure. Paper helps with both of these parts of productivity. Paper does not crash like computer systems. Paper kept in a locked file cabinet in your office is more secure than any digital set of records. And words on paper will always make sense to anyone who reads the language in which they are written. There are no compatibility issues, no upgrades, and no possible remote hacking.

Let’s take a look at how paper is a better system for keeping records. Imagine a card-catalog like the ones that contained records of all of the material in a library and the location of these items. If you are a person of a certain age, maybe you even grew up using these in school or at your own public library. Usually, a large system of drawers that housed cards detailing the information for each book, periodical, or other pieces of media, the card catalog stored information and organized it in a way that would make it accessible to anyone who understood simple directions and could read the language on the cards. If we were to store and organize our files in such a way, say, in traditional file cabinets, we would have a paper system organized according to simple and accessible rules, usable by anyone who walked into the job that very day, and it would have distinct advantages over a digital system.

Such a system would be more secure against intellectual theft than a digital one. A locked cabinet in a locked office is much more difficult to hack than a computer connected to the world wide web, which could potentially be hacked from anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. One might argue that lock-picking is easier to learn than computer hacking, especially since modern locks have not changed much over the last century, while digital security changes all of the time. However, to pick a series of locks (at least two if the office containing the archive is locked, more if the archive is comprised of multiple cabinets or physical storage devices) requires a physical presence. While paper records are, in theory, more difficult to steal or copy, in practice, they are in fact easier to protect. Sophisticated locks or even vaults that can be physically defended in one location can be as secure as any digital system and only have limited targets. This makes sharing information more difficult. But when information security is a priority, it helps to achieve a higher level of security to bring individuals to the information than it does to spread the information around the country or around the globe via networks that can be invisibly hacked.


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That is not the only drawback to using a paper system for record keeping. Storage space can certainly be an issue when dealing with paper information systems. Paper takes up much more physical room than its virtual counterpart. But how often are records kept in perpetuity? While seemingly infinite digital space does not encourage expunging old or irrelevant records/information, paper does. This can help prevent information overload, and reviewing records is unlikely to be a waste of time in most lines of work or fields of study. Paper records are even easier to securely dispose of, by one of humankind’s oldest tools: fire. It is not always easy or certain to delete every trace of a digital file. Digital records are easier to share, duplicate, and back-up. Digital records are easier to back up, but the more back-ups, the most opportunities for theft. The number and accessibility of paper records can more effectively be controlled.

We live in a digital world, but we're fairly analog creatures.

— Omar Ahmed

Digital records can be easier to index and cross-reference, but these functions have both be performed by paper for centuries. And none of this means anything if the computers or serves housing the information crash, become obsolete, or if upgrading or importing into a new system goes awry -- as it often does. Over the years, I have lost records/files to new computers, physical relocations, misplaced disks, new email accounts, and -- more likely today -- forgotten cloud accounts.

In my experience, paper is forever, while digital record keeping has failed me over and over again. Any important information that I might need or want to keep for the future goes on paper.

But I have paper records dating back over two decades. For half of my undergraduate years, I used a typewriter (from 1997-1999), and I have each essay that was worth keeping. I have lost several long expositions and entire disks of poetry from my undergraduate and graduate studies once I started relying on computers. I have also been able to pare down some of the paper I have been carrying around, while I still have useless digital files stored in various places both on- and offline that I will probably never need and probably never discard. I have lost all of the digital notes I used to study for my doctoral prelims in 2005, but I have all of the paper notes from my MA oral comprehensive exams in 2003 because I wrote them in Moleskine notebooks (there was no Write Notepads & Co back then!). When I worked in higher education doing community engagement and faculty development work, I used paper for all of my record keeping. I never lost anything, and it was as easy as handing a stack of file folders to a colleague when I left the university after my kids were born to transfer any information helpful to the school.

In my experience, paper is forever, while digital record keeping has failed me over and over again. Any important information that I might need or want to keep for the future goes on paper. I know that my kids will be able to access all of this data in the decades to come: funny things they said when they were two, their favorite books, when they learned to count -- so long as they can read my cursive.

About the Author

Johnny Gamber is a full-time Dad and writer who lives in his native Baltimore in a home full of pencils and notebooks. Find him at Pencil Revolution and as co-host of the Erasable Podcast.

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