I have been a practicing accountant for over 30 years, and when I started, all of the work I did was on paper or filling out paper forms. Then I spent a lot of time on the typewriter typing the forms also. When computers came along, they promised to eliminate paper from our offices and lives. What actually happened was we then used twice as much paper as before. Computer generated tax forms were blank on the back side, while the printed forms we used before computers were printed on both sides of the paper.
In the early 1990s, the IRS saw that they would soon be buried in paper so, they started electronic filing of tax returns and that eliminated a third of the paper we used. A couple of years ago some of the tax software companies started to promote paperless offices to the tax preparers. Like all other accounting offices, I have a set of filing cabinets with paper copies of tax returns and they take up a lot of space. I had started several years ago to zip my old tax files on my hard disk and throw out the oldest paper tax return copies, and so I have zipped files of all the tax returns. I have done since I started using a computer to do taxes. This is similar to what the tax software companies are doing, they have added a computer file cabinet, where you can set up a folder for each client, and store all of his tax information in that folder. It is easily found and opened if you néed information from the file and you can scan in notes not in the tax file or other data. No paper is néeded.
What does this have to do with genealogy? Well if you are like me, you have a ton of paper you have gathered over the years, and some is fragile or old and may fall apart if it is handled very much. Early on, I started using a computer and genealogy programs that recorded the dates, places, and had places for biographies of my ancestors. A little later, these programs allowed me to scan in pictures. I bought a hand held scanner, worked great for anything up to 4x10 inches, wider than that meant you had to stitch two images together, and they always seemed not to match very well. I scanned in a bunch of pictures and that worked great.
Later genealogy programs now allow, pictures, videos, audio recordings, so the software is ready to eliminate paper now. You can scan in all the records you have piled on the corner of your desk, filed in the file cabinet, or filling up your closet and attach them with captions to the correct ancestor. Years ago, we shared our GEDCOM files with cousins; today you can export a PDF file and copy it to a CD for your cousin.
The Internet is also making it easier to go paperless. You can now find actual records online, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, etc.. They can be downloaded directly to your computer and added to your genealogy program without using a scrap of paper. One reason many records are going online is to protect the original records. No matter how careful people are at handling old records the more they are handled the quicker they deteriorate and genealogists néed to preserve records for future researchers. Digital cameras can export pictures directly to your genealogy program eliminating the scanning process.
Does this mean the end of collecting paper copies for your ancestors? No, because some records will never be digitized, and records found in your grandparent's house will be on paper. In addition, the feeling you get when you find an original record of one of your ancestors, can never be replaced. You will still be looking for old pictures, and records of your family, but by digitizing them, you can safely store the originals and still have a good copy you can share with your cousins. There is a down side to digitizing all your records. You néed to back up all your data, and regularly check the backups to make sure the data is still there and usable, but you will still have the original paper copies if all else fails. Today there are places on the Internet where you can store backup data so there is no reason for not having your data backed up. You néed to update to later programs and media so your data is not lost or becomes unreadable.
Paperless genealogy is here now. Will you change the way you do genealogy in the future.