Holding onto old documents is hard and far more expensive than most people realize.

In the paper world, the paper just keeps piling up. The paper must be protected from theft and damage (fire and water) and if it’s ever going to be useful again you need some sort of filing and record-keeping system. A proper records retention facility is expensive to run.

With electronic documents and cheap memory, many people started to think that we could now hold onto everything. A two-gigabyte thumbdrive can hold up to the equivalent of 400,000 pages of documents. That’s 80 boxes of copy paper. And, being electronic, I can type in a few keywords and let the computer find the document I want. No more filing! Right?

Not by a long shot. Memory may be cheap but usable storage isn’t.

Electronic storage costs explode as file formats change over time. For example, a first notice of a claim involving a minor child has to be kept for up to 24 years (the child’s age of majority plus four). What word processor were you using 24 years ago? What printer was the program compatible with? What operating system did it run on? What drivers did it need to operate? What hardware did it use? When was the last time you even saw a 5ΒΌ” floppy drive, much less an old 8″ floppy? How much can you afford to pay IT to keep a working version of every system and application in the company’s history?

And that’s assuming you can find the file in the first place. We are used to thinking of searching as being as easy as Google. In fact, searching for documents is very hard when documents are scattered across ad-hoc structures like personal hard-drives and departmental folders. Solutions that try to solve the ad-hoc storage (like Google Desktop) create new problems, especially around the security of the index.

Keeping old records also exposes you to legal costs down the road. Under the new electronic discovery rules, a company must search through all its old documents just to see if they hold anything that might possibly be relevant to the lawsuit. One class action lawsuit can run into millions of dollars just in search and review costs – and that’s even if you don’t find anything. If you do have a relevant document, now you have to convert it, produce it and defend it from anyone who tries to take your words out of context. That’s expensive.

  • If your Records Retention Policy doesn’t explicitly require you to keep the record, don’t keep it. Throw it away and then you don’t have to worry about storage or formats. The cost of recreating those few useful things that we lose will be far less than the cost of hanging on to all the rest of the trash.
  • If you do have to keep a document, think long and hard about what format to save it in. Convert the file to a more stable format such as pdf or even tiff. Those formats are designed to remain readable across many generations of software. Call your IT team for instructions on how to save a file to an alternate format.

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