There’s something about paper. Not the crisp-sheet-of-A4-fresh-from-the-printer kind of paper, but the slightly crumpled, much-read kind that carries precious words or a faded picture of someone no longer part of our lives, but who once meant everything. The kind of paper that dreams and memories and even history are made of.
Paper is both the most public and most private platform for what we want to say. In 2005 a vast collection of historical letters was found in the basement of a Swiss lawyer. One was from Napoleon Bonaparte to his future empress, Josephine de Beauharnais, “I truly feel that if we quarrel I should close my heart… Have you spared me even two thoughts?” he pleads following an argument about wedding plans.
Another was by the Victorian writer Charlotte Bronte, written after some negative reviews of her new book, “when called on to criticise works of imagination, they stand in the position of deaf men required to listen to music, or blind men to judge a painting.”
These papers reveal historical figures as real people with real feelings, their voices brought to life in a way that can be held or touched. Yet paper is as fragile as it is powerful; vulnerable to damage or loss or to falling into the wrong hands. And in most cases, the impact of the loss only hits home when it’s too late.
A recent consumer study across Europe reveals that some paper documents only start to matter when we discover we’ve lost them. These include photographs of our first partner (the third most missed at 12 per cent) and the loss of a love note from a now ex-partner (missed by seven per cent).
Neither of these appear anywhere near the top of the list of the paper items we most treasure and keep. That list was led emphatically by pictures of people who are no longer around and expressions of affection from the people we are currently in a relationship with.
If time and circumstances influence what we hold dear, it follows that what matters most today may not be what matters most tomorrow. We need to store our precious paper in a way, and in a place, where we can find it when we need it – undamaged.
As an information business, my company is passionate about responsible paper archiving and digitisation – of keeping paper archives in secure, temperature-controlled vaults and, where possible, turning them into scanned digital records that can be protected, accessed and shared easily with no risk to their survival.
I work closely with organisations to digitise important historical documents – such as the archive of the wills of First World War Soldiers which were recently made available online. Once scanned, these documents can be searched and studied by relatives and academics alike, and their disparate fragments of knowledge turned into collective insight and wisdom.
Rare historical papers can and should be protected for future generations in this way, through the power of IT, and stored securely in the atmosphere-controlled environment of modern-day storage facilities. Businesses have much to gain from the same approach.
Many companies stack and store their paper records in damp basements, crowded cupboards or unlocked filing cabinets. To be of long-term value these need to be removed, categorised and managed so their content is known and protected, and the knowledge locked in them extracted and used. Additional benefits of such an approach include a reduced dependence on paper, more workspace and enhanced operational efficiency.
On the face of it, there may appear to be a vast gap between someone’s cherished personal papers and an enterprise’s global information management programme – but they’re not always that different. Whether it’s an old love note tucked into a box under the bed or an office desk-drawer stuffed with papers, people instinctively keep the things that are important to them close at hand. When storage is left to ourselves, however, proximity and access will win out over security.
For a business either/or for its valuable information. Offsite archiving and digitisation offer the opportunity to have information readily available, either scanned and delivered online, or ordered online for fast delivery – with all the additional benefits of security and management. Going to such lengths may be a step too far for personal mementos. That 1970s holiday snap of your parents with the interesting hairstyles and outfits might just have to stay in the shoebox for now.