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Is Paperless Really More?

By Ziming Liu, David G. Stork

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 43 No. 11, Pages 94-97

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For the past 20 years, the evolution of the paperless office has been predicted as an inevitable result of technology advancesthe fully electronic, high-tech office-of-the-future is just around the corner, according to this thinking. But this prediction doesn't take lessons of history into account. Far from rendering old technologies obsolete, the introduction of new technologies has often stimulated dynamic interactions between old and new. Sometimes, the introduction of new technologies sparks new interest in old ones. Gutenberg's invention of the printing press should have sounded the death knell for handwritten works, for example, yet for several centuries quite the opposite occurred:

  • At the end of the fifteenth century, even though printing was by then well established, care for the elegant hand had not died out, and some of the most memorable examples of calligraphy still lay in the future. While books were becoming more easily available and more people were learning to read, more were also learning to write, often stylishly and with great distinction, and the sixteenth century became not only the age of the printed word but also the century of the great manuals of handwriting. [4]

Those who expect new technologies to immediately change the world often forget to take into account the social-material complex of which technologies are only a part [10]. New technologies solve problems, but they also create dilemmas involving social, cultural, organizational, and human factors [5, 6].

Today, the paperless office is more distant than when it was proposed. Despite the enormous popularity of computers and personal digital assistants, along with improvements in screen technology, mobile computing technology, and navigational and input tools, paper usage in the U.S. continues to increase (see Figure 1). Of total paper production, the percentage of paper used for printing and writing increased approximately 13% from 19701997. In addition:

  • About 94% of all business information is still recorded on paper, with an estimated 2.4 billion new sheets placed in paper file folders each day, according to a 1997 survey by Wang Laboratory, Inc.
  • An average of 600 million office documents are printed out each day in the U.S., amounting to nearly three documents for every man, woman, and child, according to a Gartner Group survey.
  • Office workers continue to rely heavily on fax, despite email usage, with 60% of daily fax users faxing more in 1996 than in 1995, according to a Gallup survey of Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies [9].
  • The sales and library circulation of paper books continue to grow, suggesting that people are still heavily reliant on paper for much of their reading activities.

While paper will not become obsolete any time soon, a shift is occurring in how it is being used. The percentage of paper used by printers is increasing, while the percentage of paper used in photocopiers actually decreased. Factors contributing to the increased use of printers over copiers include the shift of information distribution patterns from Print-Copy-Distribute to Distribute-View-Print, along with the shift from centralized to decentralized printing.

Why is all this extra paper being used for printing? One reason involves, paradoxically, the increased popularity of computers as research tools. Olsen found that 63% of those interviewed preferred to annotate or underline articles as they read them [6]. Electronic note-taking is certainly possible, but it requires additional skills rather than use of a pencil or highlighter. Also, even if they don't need to highlight or annotate, many are not comfortable reading long documents on a screen. One can't spread out pages of a large document while reading or studying, for example. The long-standing practice of maintaining file folders of printed materials, arranged by topic, remains popular in the electronic age [6]. Figure 2 demonstrates the growing consumption of paper for manufacturing file folders, another indicator of the increasing use of printed information.

Unless technological improvements make annotating digital documents as easy as annotating paper documents, paper consumption is not likely to decrease.

Although many periodical subscribers now access their favorite journals electronically, because of the paucity of electronic back issues, they still need to use the traditional library to make photocopies of older issues. While our research indicates new documents are used more frequently than old ones1, many need to access more than just the current issue. According to our citation analysis of three journals (Journal of the American Chemical Society, The American Journal of Mathematics, and The American Journal of Sociology), the average length of document use (average life of citation) is very stable over the past 95 years (19001995).

The simple tangibility of the printed document is another reason for its continued popularity, despite the existence of electronic equivalents. To hold a diploma, certificate, or contract in hand provides confirmation of its credibility. The saying "put it on paper" conveys the importance of this tangible document medium. An important document sent by email, such as a job offer letter, is usually accompanied by a printed document sent via the post office. Records considered as evidence, such as legal documents, are less likely to be transferred and preserved in digital form, while others, such as most email messages and airline schedules, tend to stay digital because of their ephemeral nature.

Paper use is deeply rooted in our culture and has had a profound impact on the civilization of our society. As Strassmann noted, paper-based documents will survive as long as institutions deeply rooted in traditions of an agricultural society continue to operate [7].

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Managing Paper

The explosive consumption of paper in the office has highlighted the need, if not for a paperless office, then at least for a "less-paper" office. Professionals in today's business world spend about 60 percent of their time handling the vast quantity of paper flowing into their office daily [8]. The process is highly inefficient, suggest these survey findings [1]:

  • Large organizations lose one document every 12 seconds;
  • 3% of all documents are incorrectly filed;
  • 7.5% of documents are lost forever;
  • Disorganization in the workplace may cost executives up to six weeks of time per year;
  • The average executive spends three hours per week hunting for mislabeled, misfiled or lost documents.

With paper documents flowing at a faster pace than ever, the need for more efficient document management systems becomes increasingly urgent. Unless technological improvements make annotating digital documents as easy as annotating paper documents, as well as make it possible for people to annotate every document they view, the consumption of paper by printing is not likely to decrease. The fact that people usually spread out multiple documents while writing presents another interesting challenge.

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New technologies are commonly misperceived as total replacements for old ones, when in fact the introduction of a new technology can stimulate a synergy between old and new. Electronic media and printed media complement, and in some ways even reinforce each other. Today, paper remains the most popular document medium because of its credibility, tangibility, ease of use, portability, and compatibility with all imaging devices, such as facsimile units, copiers, printers, and scanners. We predict a long-term coexistence of paper and electronic documents.

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1. Adams, S. The corporate memory concept. The Electronic Library 13, 4 (Aug. 1995), 303312.

2. American Forest and Paper Association. 1998 Statistics: Paper, Paperboard and Wood Pulp. American Forest and Paper Association, Washington, DC, 1998.

3. Griffiths, J., and King, D.W. Special Libraries: Increasing the Information Edge. Special Library Association, Washington, DC, 1993.

4. Manguel, A. A History of Reading. Viking, NY 1996.

5. McKnight, C. Electronic journals: What do users think of them? In Proceedings of International Symposium on Research, Development and Practice in Digital Libraries (Tsukaba, Japan, Nov. 1997).

6. Olsen, J. Electronic Journal Literature: Implications for Scholars. Mecklermedia, London, 1994.

7. Strassmann, P.A. Information Payoff: The Transformation of Work in the Electronic Age. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1985.

8. Warnock, J. Electronic paper: Fulfilling the promise. Publish 6 (1991), 120

9. What paperless office? Fax use is up. Managing Office Technology 42, 1 (Jan. 1997), 39.

10. Williams, R. Television. Shochen Books, NY, 1974.

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Ziming Liu ([email protected]) is an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Science, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.

David G. Stork ([email protected]) is chief scientist at Ricoh California Research Center, Menlo Park, CA.

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1According to our survey conducted at the Library Main Stack at the University of California at Berkeley in November 1997, approximately 40% of all documents copied are less than five years old (1992-1997).

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F1Figure 1. U.S. consumption of paper and paperboard per capita, 1919-1999 (in pounds)

F2Figure 2. U.S. consumption of paper for file folder per capita, 1987-1997 (in pounds)

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