An untraceable contract from the 1980s recently caused a real tiz in a North Rhine-Westphalian town. The reason: A company located in a landscape conservation area wanted to extend its premises. Its legal predecessor had already extended in the aforementioned 1980s and, in doing so, had ensured that it would not extend again in the future – a promise that was also binding for its legal successor.
So far, so good? Wrong? This contract apparently only exists in the memory of the former councillors – at least there is no sign of it in the archive. The result: Anger and uncertainty amongst residents, with the politics and within the company itself.
3,000 kilometres of archive files
A one-off case? Perhaps – but it is no reason for malice. After all, there are paper archives across Germany; not just in local authorities. A few figures: The Association of German Cities and Towns believes there to be 3,000 kilometres-worth of files in state and non-state archives. This is equivalent to a pilgrimage from Germany to Santiago de Compostela, along the famous “Camino de Santiago”. 1,000 to 1,500 kilometres of the files are found in local authority archives. Ergo: The story of the lost contract could happen again sooner than you might think.
Legal certainty? Yes, but that is not all…
A digital archive would have reconciled many disputes about planning permission and agreements – if a file could not just be found quicker, but found at all. Even if a file happened to be deleted, it would be possible to trace who had deleted the file in question. In any case, an archive of this kind would bring a clear advantage in terms of legal certainty and planning reliability.
Yet, there is a further point that needs to be mentioned: Just as is the case with the example from the North Rhine-Westphalian local authority, a comparably old document could have political and economic relevance. A German proverb states that “paper is patient” (roughly equivalent to “paper doesn’t blush”); yet its patience does not last forever. It can age more quickly depending on the paper quality and storage. Just consider fax documents on thermographic paper! As such, digitalisation also represents a step towards long-term archiving.
A high number of unreported cases?
Now comes the inevitable question: How many kilometres of the paper archive have already been digitalised? Sadly we are stuck for an answer. No-one has yet come up with a statistic for this. One thing is for certain, though: There are sure to be some missing.