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National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program

Preservation of Paper Records

Paper records containing information about the nature of repository holdings and the data that are derived from them are key to the historical roots of sample collections. Widely available digital information and data can often be linked to original paper records.

Field notes from the USGS Field Records CollectionTranslating Information from Paper to Digital Media

Extraction of information from paper records may be a process that occurs in stages, with continual discovery of new information contained in the original paper documents. In the USGS Central Region Mineral Resources Team, it is assumed that paper records should be preserved in perpetuity, or until it is assured that all the information in the paper versions can be reconstructed from the digital versions.  A full-time employee is dedicated to archiving, management and updating of records contained and stored on paper, and progressively converting their information to a digital data management system.  

A consideration bearing on preservation of paper records is the recent recognition by several repositories that the physical storage media for the digital records that supersede paper records may not have indefinite robustness and unlimited lifetimes. Digital records may be subject to deterioration for physical reasons, such as manufacturing defects, handling, temperature, and magnetic fields.  It has long been recognized that digital records may become eventually inaccessible as hardware and software become obsolete or are not supported.

At the Alaska Geological Materials Center (GMC) it is recognized that information contained on older paper records may become ambiguous or indecipherable to contemporary users. It has been found that senior, typically retired volunteers, may have familiarity from previous professional experience with the particular information or with the idiosyncratic original styles of recording and description which can be found older paper records. The GMC has maintained a long-term program of seeking out volunteers who may have specific institutional memory, or experience with legacy data types or information to aid in translating information to digital formats.

Scanning, rather than transcription, of paper records is preferred at most repositories.  At the Kentucky Geological Survey, all paper documents are placed after scanning in heavy duty manila envelopes, which are then sealed and archived in metal filing cabinets. When full, an individual cabinet drawer is sealed and stored in a safe common area.  Sealed paper records are not publically available due to concerns about irreversible deterioiration from acids and oils on clients’ hands, possible misfiling after access, as well as potential theft.  Access is, however, provided through a designated employee.  Some available employee time is dedicated to continual review of paper records with a view to adding information to digital records (photographic information can also be added to the digital records).  Scanned paper records are made accessible online.

Applying Optical character recognition (OCR), when availble, to scanned documents increases their searchability and usefulness in extracting text and information.  OCR technology is now widely-availble through PDF creating and reading software and is recommended for use on scanned records prior to release.

Proprietary Records

Paper records, like digital records, may be restricted for varying time periods after incorporation into holdings due to their confidential or proprietary nature, or because of involvement in litigation.  A recurrent problem at repositories is that records may not be re-integrated into open access holdings after periods of confidentiality expire.  The purposeful exclusion, at the time of conversion of paper to digital, of some records from open holdings may result in permanent non-availability of many relevant records after the time of confidentiality ends. The need to monitor the ending of periods of confidentiality is increasingly recognized, with the goal of recovering previously-restricted data. 

Microfilm

Microfiche and microfilm records are conceptually similar to paper records, and are their immediate technological successor, although they are widely regarded as increasingly obsolete in view of digital alternatives.  Most repositories retain, and attempt to keep in good repair, older optical-mechanical devices for reading fiche and film.

How can you contribute?

If you have any success stories, suggestions, or contributions you would like to share, please send an email to the USGS National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program at nggdpp@usgs.gov.  We will work with you to highlight your best practices and share them online.