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When a newspaper erroneously reported his demise, Mark Twain famously said, “The report of my death is an exaggeration.” Paper documents could say the same. Paper is a remarkably persistent medium in this modern digital age, and it seems our brains are to blame.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), researchers at the U.K.’s Bangor University compared people’s responses to paper documents and digital documents. They found that tangible materials (i.e., paper) created a deeper emotional response in subjects’ brains, and the emotional response in turn made the information more memorable and created more positive associations. While subjects were able to understand and absorb text presented in a digital medium, they retained the information from paper documents better, and they made deeper connections to the information.

When the Paper and Packaging Board conducted a survey on paper usage among students, they found that 61% of middle school and high school students studied with flash cards, and 70% prepared for tests using handwritten notes. College students too used paper in their studies; 81% stated they always or often used paper tools to prep for exams.

Perhaps, after so many centuries of reading and writing on paper, our brains have become well-adapted to the medium. It may just take the human brain a few more generations to fully adapt to the digital world.

This is not to say that today’s digitally-delivered information is less valuable than paper-based information. Digital information has the great advantage of reach – it can be instantly available everywhere in the world. It also can convert information into formats that can communicate with people who have special needs. A Sec. 508-compliant “smart” document can be delivered as spoken text or as enhanced images for the visually impaired, for example. And lower paper consumption boosts a business’s green rating.

Digitally-converted documents have other advantages as well: They are a secure backup for paper documents (vulnerable to fire, insects, theft, and a host of other threats). Record retention can be monitored and managed automatically. And digital documents, unlike paper, take up almost no room. Paper is bulky; 250 filing cabinets take up 2,500 square feet of space. That space has a direct effect on overhead. When you factor in the near-instantaneous retrieval time of digital documents compared to the time needed to locate a paper document, the cost of paper really starts to add up.

Nevertheless, paper does seem to aid in the retention of information, and businesses and educational institutions are understandably reluctant to eliminate it all together. Each enterprise, and each department within it, must find a balance between paper and digital documents. Marketing departments may rely more heavily on paper, with its emotional appeal and message retention, while accounting departments may be nearly 100% digital. A top-to-bottom assessment of information workflow and archiving will help determine what part of your business will benefit from digital conversion, and what part will do well to keep using the old familiar medium of paper – stored in a space-saving high density shelving system, of course.

 

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