Ten tons of paper

One day last month I moved ten tons of paper. I didn’t move it all at the same time, of course, or all at once. The paper was in boxes, lots of boxes, averaging forty pounds a box. Some weighed less than forty pounds, but a lot of them weighed more. It took three of us about six hours to finish the project, but I know that during these six hours I moved at least five hundred boxes.

I work at a library. One department of the library is an archive. Individuals, families, businesses, and other organizations donate their papers to the library so other people can study those papers and learn about those people and organizations and their contributions to the history of our city. After the papers have been donated, a team of archivists prepares them for researchers. The archivists go through the papers, removing rusty staples and paper clips, hardened rubber bands, and other harmful items. Next they organize the paper to help the researchers, although they try to maintain the original order whenever possible, since the order of the papers is part of their story. Finally, the archivists write a description, or index, of the papers, which they call a Finding Aid. This description tells researchers what the library has and where they can find these papers.

The library is running short of storage space. To use space more efficiently, the library’s directors bought shelves that move along a track. These movable shelves can contain more boxes than regular shelves, since there is only one aisle for the whole set of shelves, but the shelves can be moved left or right along the track, making every box accessible (but not all of them at the same time). To use these shelves, though, the library’s workers first had to empty the old shelves, dismantle and remove them, install the new shelves, and then put the boxes on the new shelves. That is what I did last month—moved ten tons of paper in boxes onto their new, space-efficient shelves.

Some reader is saying right now, “Hey, J., why doesn’t your library join the twenty-first century? You could save a lot of time and a lot of space if you would just digitize all those papers instead of storing them and organizing them and describing them. You could load the digital copies into the Cloud and send the paper out to be recycled.” Well, I’m sorry, dear reader, but it is not as easy as you think. I can give you three very good reasons why your up-to-the-minute proposal doesn’t work.

First, do you have any idea how many pages are contained in ten tons of paper? Can you imagine how many hours of labor it would take to run each one of those pages through a scanner? And even if the library wanted to spend money to digitize every sheet of paper, what kind of server do you think could handle all those scans and make them available to the public?

Second, even if they did digitize all those pages and publish them online somewhere, how would researchers know what was in those pages? They still need to be organized and described to be useful to anyone. As a book needs a table of contents and an index, so a collection of historic papers—including ledger books, maps, photographs, and all kinds of other stuff—needs a finding aid to make research possible.

Third, digital technology itself can fail. Computers crash, files become corrupted, and technology always changes. If the only copy of some important document is digital, sooner or later it will disappear. How many of us have lost priceless (to ourselves) stories and essays and photographs because we trusted a computer to save it for us? The library’s staff of archivists will digitize the papers and photographs of greatest value to researchers, and they will make them available online; but to be safe, they still will not discard the originals. Most of the tons of paper will not be digitized. It will be cleaned and arranged and described.

The library directors are wise to accept these gifts of paper, to pay archivists to organize and describe these gifts, and to keep these gifts carefully in storage for researchers today and for researchers of generations yet to come. I am glad that I, in one small way last month, was allowed to contribute to the preservation of history.


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