Facing the pitfalls of going paperless

In less than a decade, John Brinkema expects that it will be common to see people carrying around electronic folders that will open to reveal two thin display screens that are connected wirelessly to a "ubiquitous server" and that deliver almost any information instantly anywhere.

Essentially, "we will be paperless," said Brinkema, a senior research computer scientist for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Far-out as that may seem, Brinkema acknowledges that there are plenty of drawbacks. Screens can be hard to read, and even lightweight displays are heavier than paper. "If paper were invented after electronic documents, it would be considered a remarkable step forward," he joked. "It's cheap, it's portable and you can read it in the bathtub," he told a convention of archivists on Tuesday.

For those who labor in the field of document preservation, dealing with electronic documents is fraught with difficulties.

For example, there is the problem of the proliferation of formats, said Brinkema, who is developing an electronic archive for the U.S. Courts. Besides multiple formats for documents, there are multiple versions of most formats, and a given format is not always compatible with the versions that came before or after it, he said.

The problem is compounded by the rapid evolution of information technology. Electronic documents may be preserved yet inaccessible because they are in old formats and the software and hardware needed to read them have become unavailable.

Encryption may be archivists' next big problem, Brinkema said. Worries about privacy are driving Internet users toward encryption. But the same sophisticated encoding that will keep electronic messages private will make them impossible for archivists to read.

Decryption keys will have to be preserved with encrypted documents to make them readable. But authors who bothered to encrypt documents for privacy purposes in the first place may be reluctant to provide keys that would let the public decode them, he said.

Sheer volume is another problem confronting archivists of electronic documents. The aim of the U.S. Courts is to develop an archive of 30 years' worth of electronic documents. In such a collection, the search for a particular document may yield millions of returns — far too many to make finding the desired document practical.

Archivists dealing with electronic documents will have to consider what has heretofore been considered heresy - destroying documents, Brinkema said. "You will have to manage data, which includes destroying some data, so what's left is usable," he said.

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