Probably the most popular question asked of heralds by submitters, other heralds and those in charge of the kingdom and Society purse strings is: why are all the heraldic records kept in miles and miles of filing cabinets instead of in a computer?
The reason boils down to the weight of history. Currently, Society wide, we have forty years of existing heraldic registrations. To put them on a computer would require scanning. They are not in ideal condition as they are – see Teceangl Bach’s study of what can happen to coloured paper over time – so there’s no way to feed them through an industrial scanner. They have to be scanned one by one, carefully lest the originals be destroyed before the scan can be verified (or even begun!). They are hand-written, so optical character recognition is impossible and a lot of the data has to be entered by hand – although this is easier than it seems since a few characters of a name will suffice to narrow down a selection, since all the names are already on file. And while all this scanning is being done, the College of Arms requires ready access to the files to make decisions. This is not a trivial matter. It is, in fact, being worked upon even now by the Laurel File Clerk and, one would hope, a team of competent heralds with excellent geek-backup. But it’s slow going.
So the answer is: heralds keep stuff on paper because getting it off the paper is a big job. Ask again in another ten years and the answer may be “what? we don’t! what a dumb idea!” but for now that’s how it has to be.
A few years later…
What? We don’t! What a dumb idea!
Well, not quite, but we’re closer than ever, and less than five years after the above was written. Lochac’s heraldry records are digital, by way of great effort by those involved in the project, and we are somewhat free of the tyranny of paper.
Under the new submissions rules, much of the records are kept digitally, including heraldic submissions, up to and including the point that you can submit your name, device and badge without harming a single tree (though the hard-copy option is still accepted).