The Challenges of Going Paperless in the Windy City

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 02/01/2013

Via Two Sides, an interesting look at the challenges that the city of Chicago is facing as it attempts to “go paperless.”

January 29 2013

by Richard Romano

Via Two Sides, an interesting look at the challenges that the city of Chicago is facing as it attempts to “go paperless.” What I especially like about this story is that at no point is “the environment” invoked as the reason for eschewing the mounds of paper that a large city government can generate. Ultimately, the objective is to save money, increase efficiency, and reduce waste. It’s hard to argue with those goals and, as someone who has over the years spent literally hours standing in line at the DMV, I am more than happy that I can renew my car registration or drivers license online. I don’t know if there is paper at the other end of the pipe, but it does not especially concern me that there is none at my end. Speed and efficiency; killer apps for any technology.

That said, what I also like about this story is some of the challenges the city has encountered in attempting to digitize everything. For example, you can scan paperwork to a digital file, but then there is the issue of storage:

“The technology continually changes,” [says John Reinhardt, a longtime reference historian at the Illinois State Archives]. “The last 20 years, we’ve gone from those huge 5 1/4-inch floppy disks to the small floppies to CDs to DVDs to thumb drives. And if you’re not continually migrating all of this information to a format that’s usable, at some point you’re not going to be able to use it.” By way of example, he says, “We’ve got old reel-to-reel tapes upstairs. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with those, but they’re hard to come by.”

One other interesting find—among many interesting finds in the hard-copy records—concerned a correctional record for a state prisoner named Susan Lehew, who had been imprisoned for larceny in 1876.

The intake administrator at the Illinois State Penitentiary wrote at the time that Lehew’s hair was “yaller.” Later, Reinhardt guesses, a supervisor scrawled a weirdly mocking, passive-aggressive question on the paper: “Does the above mean that the girl is red headed, or that her hair is simply a kind of ‘yaller’?” The answer comes wordlessly, in physical form: a lock of Lehew’s blond hair sits to the right, preserved in a plastic sleeve labeled “Susan Lehew #9754A.”

“The hair was just sitting in the file when we found it,” Reinhardt says calmly, looking down at it. “You could scan that, I guess, but you miss something….” He struggles to find a word. “You just, I don’t know. You miss something,” he says. “You can’t put that in a PDF.”

I certainly don’t intend to argue against digitizing government—or any—paperwork, but a lot of “legacy” documents are of interest to historians and researchers and the digitization process may lose some valuable ancillary material. As Frank Romano once remarked, “The Dead Sea Scrolls were readable after thousands of years. What if they had been the Dead CD-ROMs?” Cute, eh? But he has a point. In our rush to save money and ostensibly to save waste, we should watch out for unintended consequences.