File Archiving

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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File archiving didn't start with digital technology, of course. In its infancy it meant carving hieroglyphics into Egyptian limestone and etching Jia-gu wen (Oracle Bone) script into Middle Shang Dynasty turtle shells. Today, the array of formats is admittedly dizzying. We now use document scanning, ASCII and Unicode text, embedded digital signatures, automated optical backups, PDF and DWG file structures, metadata, full-text indexing, user demographics, and quite a bit more.

The vast amount of information we generate, thanks to this technology, is staggering. It means developing file archiving systems to manage trillions of binary records and multiple formats. Digital data is not only amazing but efficient. Look at the alternatives. Think about the keepers of the Dead Sea Scrolls rolling sheets of papyrus into clay jars and storing those in caves at the end of each day.

File Archiving: The Advantages of a Digital System

You're weighing the relative merits of paper filing against digital imaging. There's no contest. In a paper-based system, statistics indicate most documents are copied 19 times. Employees, professional or clerical, spend about 50 percent of their time looking for information but only 10 percent reading. About eight percent of all documents are lost. About three percent are misfiled.

What's more, approximately 90 percent of corporate and organizational memory is on paper. Paper takes up space, burns, gets damp, and disintegrates. Look at the 1890 federal census. In 1921 the government had no archives building. That particular census sat on pine shelves outside a Commerce Department vault, for want of space. A fire broke out. Firemen poured 20 streams of water into the building. Twelve years later the charred and sodden remains were officially destroyed.

The flip (digital) side of the file archiving picture shows a two-tiered system of shared documents, active and archived, retrieved in seconds by many users at the same time in different places. Duplicate electronic backups are stored in multiple facilities and maintained on an ongoing basis, meaning that there's virtually no chance of lost data. Storage space is minimal: approximately 23,000 text documents can be stored on just one low-cost CD and about seven times that on a DVD.

File Archiving: The Need for Retrievable Data

The cornerstone to managing all this information is making it readily accessible as well as secure. Whatever the system of file archiving you opt for, if you can't get to the data, you've got a major problem. On a shelf right behind me, for example, I've got a Zip drive with 17 years' worth of letters from the early 19th century. This is daily correspondence, and the originals are long since lost. Yet, I can't get at them.

The disk is encrypted and the encryption is hardware, not software, based. This means that there's no way to unlock the disk and the data on it without the password that wasn't written down. Otherwise, it was a neat bit of file archiving. The letters, however, might just as well have been in a courthouse that burned to the ground during Sherman's march to the sea in 1865. Accessibility is critical.

When it comes down to deciding among the alternatives for a record keeping and file retrieval system, you, as a planner, need to consider both the types of records and user needs. Would you rather have a file archiving system that requires an IT expert to maintain it? Or would you rather have one that someone with only basic computer skills can handle and that's capable of sustaining a bandwidth for hundreds of users at the same time?These and many other considerations must be decided before you choose a file retrieving system.


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