Our esteemed guest blogger, Miriam Kahn, has used municipal and county courthouses and record centers to compile legal, real estate and genealogical information for 20 years. She experienced the shift from print to digital, from photocopies to microfilm to digital, and from paper deliverables to digital delivery—and is very familiar with issues surrounding long-term storage of paper, audiovisual, and digital materials. We asked Miriam to bring her years of insight as an information professional and free-lance researcher to a blog series on the merits and challenges of off-site and remote storage.
This blog post kicks off a series about storing materials off-site whether they are actively used, inactive, or newly digitized. First, let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of storing materials off-site.
It would be naïve to think the issues that revolve around storing records off-site are new. For as long as there have been repositories of information, repositories have overflowed and older materials were stored somewhere else, often in a basement or attic, a storeroom, and ultimately a distance away. In this age of digitized records accessible through databases and finding aids, our patrons locate information through computers and are encouraged to use the digitized versions, the legal surrogates that are scans or images of original documents and bound materials. Access to the original records is often discouraged or delayed due to distance, retrieval schedules, or physical fragility.
In an effort to reduce costs, materials are moved out of expensive active library, archives, and records spaces on university campuses, in court houses and municipal buildings, and organizational complexes, to less expensive off-site and remote site storage facilities.
Before we can discuss this topic intelligently, let’s define some terms so we’re all on the same page.
On-site storage means housing materials in the same physical structure as the information center, library, archive or record center or municipal building. This means records, documents, bound materials, and digital (both digitized and born-digital) files are readily available, in an area where staff can retrieve them without leaving the floor or repository. Materials could be stored in a secure location in the basement, attic, or a limited access floor.
Off-site storage means shelving or storing materials in a location that’s in close geographical proximity to the parent organization location but requires retrieval on a regular schedule. Off-site storage could be a facility on another part of campus, down the street, or in a secure record storage facility in the same town. The facility could be owned by the organization or leased from a third party like FireProof or Iron Mountain above ground storage facilities. Records stored in these facilities are often low use, less-active records scheduled for destruction in the near future (within 5-7 years). They could be records of permanent historical value but not actively requested. Costs for housing materials off-site are less than in the expensive on-campus facilities. It will be important to factor in long-term leases, retrieval and duplication or courier costs when planning operating budgets.
Source: Society of American Archivists (SAA) Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology
Remote storage means housing records, materials, documents, and digital files in a facility that is some distance from the parent organization. These facilities have stable environments with little fluctuation of temperature and relative humidity and limited exposure to light and water. The materials are low use but of historical or artefactual value. They may have been digitized or microfilmed in the past because they are physically fragile, so housing them remotely will increase their lifespan. Materials housed in remote storage facilities are retrieved on a schedule or upon request and shipped back to the parent organization or digitized and uploaded to secure servers for retrieval. Costs for housing materials in remote storage facilities are much less expensive than in off-site and on campus facilities. It will be important to factor in long-term leases, retrieval and duplication or courier costs when planning operating budgets.
Source: Society of American Archivists (SAA) Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology
While SAA defines off-site and remote storage as synonyms, I will use them specifically to differentiate distance from the parent or organizational site.
Costs vs. convenience
How do we balance the cost of access to digitized materials with that of housing, retrieving, and delivering stored documents to the parent site? It’s a question all information professionals deal with—especially when many of our records are digitized and available through online catalogs, databases, finding aids, and intranets.
The simplest and more prevalent answer is, “it’s less expensive.” When seldom used materials are moved out of the main collection areas and into an off-site or remote storage facility, we can make better use of the expensive on-site facility. We provide reference and information retrieval from our desks and reading rooms and point our users toward the digitized records. Storage becomes a lower cost but recurring charge in our operating budgets.
In archives and municipal record centers, we provide computers in our public spaces for users who can print out or download records quickly and easily. No more pulling heavy books, searching for misplaced volumes, or climbing ladders to retrieve older documents. Gone are the shelves upon shelves of paper records. Staff and patrons alike revel in the open space and convenience. Microfilm and microfiche of documents have been digitized and are stored off-site along with the paper records.
Costs for the local space decrease with the removal of physical records into storage facilities. The cost savings can be used to pay for recurring off-site and remote site storage, document retrieval, and digitization of new materials.
In return, information centers, records centers and municipal agencies save money in printing costs, paper, toner, and equipment by shifting those costs onto researchers who can download the images directly into their computers. Staffing costs associated with copying of records for patrons decrease because now the patrons can access and duplicate records for themselves.
Problems arise when the scanned images are not legible or retrievable. If the original was poorly reproduced using older technology, then newly digitized records won’t be readable either. The original is probably decipherable using the naked eye—but now it is stored somewhere else. The original needs to be retrieved from storage, requiring careful negotiation with staff and customer service representatives. In this scenario, the customer is inconvenienced by the retrieval time. The customer may be asked to visit the off-site storage center to view the documents requiring an appointment and/or another trip to the main repository.
Costs associated with off-site and remote site storage include long-term recurring leasing costs, staff wages, charges for retrieval, delivery both physical and digital, and rehousing—and the inconvenience to researchers, the last being an intangible cost.
In this case, the decreased cost and convenience of digitized records intersects with the inconvenience of off-site and remote storage, putting the customer at a disadvantage.
How will we interact with patrons who request the stored records?
It’s essential that staff provide well-honed customer service responses to their patrons in order to speed up retrieval of requested materials. It’s a fact of life, when researchers need physical access to stored items, the facility is closed for lunch, it’s not staffed on that particular day, items were already retrieved for the day or week, or worst of all, the requested document or material is “misplaced.”
Solutions abound depending upon the urgency of the request and the location of the off-site storage facility. All these solutions incur costs which should be weighed against on-site storage expenses.
For staffed facilities in close proximity:
- Same day or next day is essential if the storage facility is staffed and there is a public work area; the patron could be sent there to work with the original object.
- Using traditional document delivery procedures, staff could send a new digital image to the requester.
- Courier delivery of physical materials is possible if digitization does not improve legibility.
For remote storage facilities:
- Next delivery day retrieval of requested items is essential.
- Using traditional document delivery procedures, staff could send a new digital image to the requester or mail a ‘best copy’ if digitization does not improve legibility.
- Courier delivery of materials for highest priority items.
No matter whether the organization owns or leases the off-site or remote facility, prompt retrieval of materials and delivery to requesters is essential.
We all agree it is expensive to house seldom used items in our information centers. Digitization of physical records and subsequent off-site and remote site storage reduces local costs, but this could be outweighed by long-term leasing or rental, retrieval, and delivery costs.
The next installment will explore the best storage solutions for your institution or record center.