The Death of Microfilm

Genealogists love microfilm. Visit any genealogy library anywhere, and you will see genealogists in darkened rooms, hunched over microfilm viewers, trying to solve the puzzles of their family trees. I have taken several pictures of genealogists sitting at rows of microfilm readers. However, I suspect that within ten years those pictures will become collectors’ items, recalling an era that exists only as distant memories in the minds of “the old-timers.” You see, microfilm and microfiche are about to disappear.

Many of the manufacturers of microfilm and microfiche equipment have already disappeared or else have switched their production lines to other products.

The problem is economics: microfilm is expensive. Those who wish to preserve data find it faster, easier, and cheaper to scan documents on computer scanners and then make the information available as disk images than it is to do the same thing on microfilm. Hospitals, insurance companies, government agencies, and others have already made the switch from microfilm to digital imaging. Genealogists are among the very few still using microfilm and even that number is dropping rapidly.

The demand for microfilm and microfiche equipment is dwindling. Without demand, manufacturers no longer can afford to manufacture the necessary equipment. Microfilm cameras and viewers are becoming as uncommon as buggy whips.

Microfilm cameras are almost impossible to purchase today, except perhaps for used units on eBay or at some garage sale. Twenty years ago, Bell and Howell manufactured thousands of microfilm cameras each year. Ten years ago, production had dropped to hundreds per year. Since then, the company has ceased manufacturing microfilm cameras and dropped them from the product catalog, all because of decreasing sales. Most of Bell and Howell’s competitors have also stopped manufacturing microfilm and microfiche equipment.

Without cameras, no one is going to be producing new microfilms. We genealogists are going to be limited to the microfilms that were filmed years ago. However, this assumes that microfilm copying equipment is still available. The fact is that even that even microfilm duplication equipment is disappearing. The duplication equipment already in place requires maintenance and occasional spare parts. Those parts are rapidly becoming unavailable.

Of course, in order to make copies, you also must be able to purchase rolls of unexposed film. I am told that supplies of new film is also disappearing as demand drops. All the major manufacturers of microfilm have dropped out of that business although a few specialty manufacturers still sell new microfilm. Prices for unexposed rolls of microfilm are now four times the price of a few years ago, or higher.

Within a decade, it will be difficult or perhaps impossible to obtain a copy of an old microfilm, even to replace a worn-out copy of a microfilm you already own. Nobody will have the equipment or the rolls of unexposed film with which to make copies!

In addition, making a copy of a microfilm introduces fuzziness, or what the engineers call “visual noise.” Then, making a copy of that copy introduces further loss of image; copying that copy adds still more, and so on and so forth. However, a copy of a digital image is identical to the original. You can make copies of copies of copies of digital images, and each new image is identical to the original with no signal loss. Making and copying digital images is faster, more cost-effective, and easier than doing the same with microfilm.

For years, genealogists have proclaimed that digital images will never replace microfilm because “the media (computer disks, tapes, etc.) doesn’t last long.” CD-ROM disks last only 25 years or so. Floppies don’t even last that long.

The genealogists who make those claims are ignoring one very simple and cost-effective solution: copy the images to new, fresh media every few years. Remember that each digital copy is identical to the original, unlike microfilm. A digital copy of a copy of a copy is still as good as the original.

With images stored on disk, it is almost trivial to copy the images to new disks periodically. If technology changes, such as DVD disks replacing CD disks or Blu-ray disks replacing DVD disks, the old images are simply copied to new media. If file formats change, the old formats are easily converted to whatever new formats become popular.

With that process in place, the life expectancy of digital images becomes almost infinite. In fact, any well-managed data center already makes backup copies on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. If the images are available online, they are already being copied regularly to (new) backup copies. Who cares about the life expectancy of the original disks when you always have a fresh copy on a new disk?

Any archive charged with storing a collection of images will find the periodic copying of digital images to be much cheaper than trying to maintain a large collection of microfilm images. In short, digital imaging ensures that future generations can have the same access that you and I enjoy, something not possible with microfilms.

The next equipment to disappear will be microfilm viewers.

Go to any large genealogy library today, and you will still see rows of microfilm viewers. I hope those libraries take good care of them. Ten or twenty years ago several major companies produced microfilm and microfiche viewers. Several small companies still manufacture viewers today although most of the “big names” in the business have dropped out. The small specialty manufacturers of today cannot depend on genealogists alone for future sales. Sooner or later, they will also drop out as their customer base disappears. I am guessing that you will not be able to purchase a new microfilm viewer ten years from now. Even worse, you won’t even be able to purchase spare parts for the worn-out units your library already owns.

Within the genealogy world, FamilySearch, an arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), has traditionally been the biggest user of microfilm equipment. With this huge investment already made in microfilm, you might expect the LDS Church to continue using microfilm forever. That’s not true, according to numerous announcements made in recent years. FamilySearch is already moving away from microfilm, replacing it as fast as possible with digital images, mostly made from the old microfilms.

The printed books in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City are also being copied to digital images whenever copyright agreements with the authors allow. The result is that many more books are now available (by looking on computer screens) than ever before. The Library simply isn’t big enough to store all the printed copies but storage space is almost a non-issue with digital versions. Even better, the books may be viewed by patrons many thousands of miles away, again where copyright agreements allow.

To be sure, the LDS Church still owns quite few microfilm cameras but no longer uses them to film old records at various locations around the world. Nobody has been able to purchase new cameras for years. The units that were in use kept wearing out, and the original manufacturers no longer sell spare parts. For a while the Mormon Church even contracted with small machine shops to make spare parts for the cameras, but that soon became cost-ineffective.

The LDS Church has now moved to digital imaging. The focus has shifted from microfilm to making digital images on site – in the original repositories – with no microfilm involved. The acquisition teams use a laptop PC and a scanner in much the same manner as you and I do at home, although the scanner is more sophisticated and ruggedized than the typical unit sold to consumers.

A separate activity involves the conversion of the millions of reels of existing microfilm created over the years by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to digital images. That effort has been underway for several years.

To be sure, millions of rolls of microfilm already exist, and they will not disappear overnight. We will continue to see microfilm readers in libraries for several more years. However, as new microfilms become unavailable, replacements of existing microfilms also become unavailable. As the reels of microfilm become scratched from use, replacements will not be available. As the microfilm viewers wear out and replacements are no longer available, the result will be inevitable.

Luckily, digital images are faster, more cost-effective, cheaper, and more practical. With periodic copying, digital images have infinite “shelf life.” They are also easier to “send” to Family History Centers around the world and to other libraries.

The price of a new PC for use by library patrons has now dropped to under $500 while a new microfilm viewer designed for heavy-duty library usage, if you can find one, costs $1,000 or more. Even better, it is relatively cheap to allow library patrons to view digital images from their homes, something that is much more difficult with microfilm. The superior quality and availability, along with the lower cost of production, maintenance, and duplication, are a boon to us genealogists as well as those who follow in our footsteps.

Within a few years, some of us will be telling newcomers, “I remember the good old days when we had to hand-crank microfilm viewers. There was none of this modern stuff where everything appeared on a computer screen.”

Would you please hand me my slippers and cane? I’m going to go sit in my rocking chair and look at my old (digital) pictures of genealogists sitting at rows of microfilm readers.

35 Comments

In an era of digitization, why does NARA continue to microfilm records?

http://www.archives.gov/preservation/formats/microfilming.html

Northeast Document Preservation Center:

http://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/6.-reformatting/6.1-microfilm-and-microfiche

Heritage Archives archival microfilm company: Why Microfilm?

http://www.heritagearchives.org/WhyMicrofilm.aspx

A simple Google search shows dozens of companies selling microfilm, scanners, and related supplies. Millions of rolls of microfilm exist in thousands of archives throughout the world. Microfilm isn’t going to disappear “in a few years.”

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One holdup to this disappearance of microfilm is whether the film owners have rights to publish records in a different format. It’s possible a contract FamilySearch signed 40 years ago only allows for microfilm reproduction. If the archive isn’t willing to negotiate a new contract, the only way to view those records externally may be to view the film copy. Didn’t something similar happen with the old FamilySearch dos program and the Scotland church records?

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    That sounds very familiar… I don’t remember the details but I seem to remember how it took a while to renegotiate contracts for a problem such as this.

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    I am a library director. The largest part of our microfilm collection is our local newspaper. Their owning company is not interested in digitization, and we do not have the legal rights to do so. We purchased a digital microfilm viewer last year and will be using our microfilm indefinitely.

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You mention the cost savings of digital, but fail to address the cost to convert existing microfilm records to digital. “A separate activity involves the conversion of the millions of reels of existing microfilm created over the years by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to digital images. That effort has ben underway for several years.” The deep pockets of LDS enable that to be undertaken. Most small to mid-size public institutions do not have the time, money, personnel or resources to undertake that scale of a project.

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    Converting microfilm to digital is generally cheaper than making duplicate copies of microfilm.

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    Copy of a 35mm microfilm reel: $30
    Conversion of a 35mm microfilm reel to pdf and copied to a DVD: $250 minimum, $37 for the DVD
    This is from a company in Kansas City, MO

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    That sounds like a very high price. The organizations that convert hundreds of reels of microfilm to digital images do so for about $10 per reel. Of course, that is a high volume operation. Any company that converts one reel at a time and then copies it to CD-ROM or DVD-ROM obviously has to charge more. Even so, the price you quote seems excessive. I’d suggest shopping around for a better quote.

    If the quote of $250 minimum is typical, I am tempted to switch careers!

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What is the process to convert microfilm to a digital image, assuming the paper record is no longer available?

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I just hope that all the records that currently are only available on microfilm at the smaller repositories – like county departments – get digitized before the ability to read the documents disappears. We recently looked for records at the local Register of Wills – who had the microfilm but no reader, as their old reader “broke.” Fortunately, the local library still has a reader (& it’s a small town, so it was OK to take the microfilm from one building to another). Unfortunately, before it broke, the old Register’s reader had badly scratched the emulsion on the film. No one seemed to know if the records/film had been digitized.

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Couple of issues here. One is the challange of getting documents now onto digitized media from either where the originals are held or copies. It is not yet clear if a lot of libraries are going to either convert their holdings, replace the holdings with digital images or just not do either and eventialy withdraw the microfilm (and the things on it) from circulation because the present equipment becomes unrepairable.
There are cases (don’t ask it will cause trouble) where institutions said they copied stuff to microfilm but don’t seem to have done so as it doesn’t appear to exist and then the originals managed to get “recycled”. I shouldn’t even get into the issue of things like developed x-ray film (and other types of film) being processed to reclaim the silver.
Sorry about all the negative waves. Its been an interesting couple of weeks with things like a church cemetery with a beautiful website but you are not going to be allowed to view the sacrimental records (baptism as alternative or supportive of birth records with “sponsors” who could be relatives/actual records of marriages with such little things like witnesses and sometimes parents) and the “little” challenge that the church seems not to have plot cards for a lot of plots (which you can’t look at in any case because two whole families with different surnames are in there per the town but as there are no headstones, the people are no in the website for the cemetery….arrrrgh

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Dick, from the standpoint of technological advancement, your argument makes sense. However, as the assistant director at a medium-sized library with a very representative genealogy/local history collection, including microfilm of every extant newspaper published in our community, our observation is that it’s not about technology, but digital rights. We own, on microfilm, newspaper images for our community dating back to the mid-1870s. If we didn’t have microfilm, our institution would be at the mercy of vendors offering access (not ownership) to those images, at a price unaffordable to us, and generally to the great majority of public libraries, even if we grouped ourselves together into consortia to pool resources. It should also be noted that, while images for many pre-1923 newspapers are available, and many late-20th century papers were born digital and print, digital images from the period in between are often scarce. So, be careful what you wish for–while the technology exists to ease microform technology into the museum, the economic model has yet to evolve for access to a significant segment of digital content, for mid-20th century newspapers especially, at a reasonable cost to genealogists.

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    Don, what you described is probably the biggest problem of all today with microfilm: the legal issues.

    The technical issues are clear and most everyone I talk to in the microfilm business tells similar stories: microfilm is going away. I have discussed this with senior officials at FamilySearch, as well as with people at the National Archives and Records Administration, The National Archives of Great Britain, NewsBank, (a company that is digitizing thousands of old newspaper images that are on microfilm or on the original paper), ProQuest (another company that is digitizing thousands of old newspaper images that are on microfilm or still on the original paper), Footnote (later acquired by Ancestry.com and re-named Fold3, a company that is digitizing millions of old documents from both paper and microfilm), at the American Antiquarian Society (believed to be the largest repository of historic American newspapers) and from a company I won’t name that contracts microfilm conversion work for most of the other organizations I just mentioned. All of them tell similar stories about the obsolescence of microfilm.

    Some predict that new rolls of blank microfilm will become unavailable within five years while other believe it will be twenty years. Whatever number you choose to believe, the results are the same.

    The technology solution is simple but the legal complexities confuse me. There are all sorts of concerns about copyrights and about contractual issues between the companies that made the original microfilms and the organizations that hired them to do so. I am not an attorney so I won’t write about the legal issues. However, I am aware that it is a serious problem, especially for those who do not hold the rights to reproduce the microfilms they already own.

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This period of transition from microfilm to online digital versions of historical records is presenting problems for researchers who rely heavily on records that seem to be low priority to be digitized and are paying steeper film rental fees to the Family History Library just as their local Family History Centers have stopped maintaining their viewers. If you need a viewer that takes a high-magnification lens, you’re even more out of luck — two out of the three viewers at my FHC that do this weren’t functioning on my last visits; the one remaining machine is the only one from which patrons can scan or print record copies, so patrons must compete for that one machine. With several dozen films on permanent loan that I can’t move from that FHC to one with working equipment and limited hours for access, it’s challenging to carry out one’s own research, not to mention trying to help others. Digitization can’t come soon enough, and in the meantime, Family History Centers have a responsibility to maintain adequate viewer resources so patrons can actually use the microfilms they’ve paid for.

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Our library holds over 1,500 rolls of microfilm. We bought 2 digital readers last year. We won’t be getting rid of anything for the forseeable future.

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While you joke about the desire to crank through a microfilm, I’d much rather have that option than viewing browse only digital images on my home computer. I can locate an index in the middle of a collection very quickly with microfilm. The same process is painfully long when guessing at the location and waiting for the screen to refresh as I page through the digital version. Until all the digital collections are indexed, I’ll happily continue to use microfilm.

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    Agree. And browsing through newspapers on microfilm is far easier than doing it with online digital images.

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    I do consulting work very part time and part of that is doing documentation review at banks. The short version is I take loan files (usually of loans done withing a year) and go through the file to confirm that the lenders have what they should have based on the type of loan, the commitment letter and required collateral. Then there is the making sure that all documents are signed, the information is correct and a lot of other detail. It used to be just paper-based files. Some places have gone to digital images of the original documents and supporting paper- they HAVE to keep the originals- but they are often putting the files in their own records management storage areas (off site) or contracting with storage companies. They only want to deal with the paper if there is a problem.
    Quite a few will wait till they have almost everything back (open post-closing items are one of the things I look for) and then scan the file into digital images. If you have ever been frustrated by looking on microfilm for pages in a newspaper that has been filmed, you will certainly tear you hair out if you try to check documentation of a 300 page loan file (not including copies of fiancial statements) that have been fed through a digital scanner in one pass and is effectively one image. WHEN (not if) you get to the end of the file and find that you didn’t find or see something that should or MUST be in the file, it is brutal to go back and try and find 1) where it should have been and 2) check alternatives where it could have been. Sequential images of individual pages is the only way to go.

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    Apples and oranges. Loan documents are on letter or legal-sized paper. Newspaper pages are so large that a full-page image onscreen has print so small it’s unreadable. This requires much zooming, scrolling, etc., which is a PITA compared to being able to view and read almost the full page on a microfilm reader.

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I agree with Nancy. Whizzing through a microfilm on a reader to get to the exact page is so much easier than the “hunt and peck” method of locating that page on the computer. On the other hand, I was at the Family History Library recently and the two microfilms I needed were already being used by others. I was so happy to find those films had been digitized, and that I could use the computer to read the records, even though it was not as fast as using the microfilm reader.

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I only made a couple of attempts to use microfilm at my regional NARA branch. On both occasions, within half an hour, I had a screaming migraine from scrolling through looking for what I wanted. And I never found anything I was looking for. This was more than 10 years ago, and I’ve no idea if they still have those rows on row of readers. Myself, I’d much rather browse through the same data online, where I can enlarge the print if need be. I can spend all day at this with nary a migraine. The question, of course, is whether the same data has yet been scanned and is available online. In this instance, I was looking at census data, so of course it’s widely available. Other records that should be easy to find I’m still hunting, so they may be buried in microfilm somewhere that await digitization for either technical or legal reasons.

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Another legal issue is the fact that in some states, vital records were microfilmed. Later the laws changed, making even hundred year old vital records confidential.

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David Paul Davenport May 31, 2014 at 12:58 pm

I will admit to knowing very little about the technology involved but I have yet to see an scanners for sale at Ofgfice Depot, Best Buy, etc that have a platform large enough to scan a newspaper page in a single pass. I’ve even been thwarted in scanning the master index for a local funeral home that exists in a “register” that is 15 x 20, and about 800 pages back to back with very tight binding. It seems to me that some form of inexpensive “microfilm” camera that saves the image in digital form as a “filmstrip,” is needed so that small libraries can accomplish their goals. Any thoughts anyone?

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    —> I have yet to see scanners for sale at Office Depot, Best Buy, etc that have a platform large enough to scan a newspaper page in a single pass.

    While not available at the ‘big box” stores, there are a number of scanners available at reasonable prices that will scan very large books, documents, maps, paintings, and more. They will handle 15×20 and even much larger items than that. You can read my recent article about one such oversize scanner at http://wp.me/p5Z3-df

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    I don’t need a micofilm scanner — I need a reader.

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I need a microfilm reader. Where can I get one? – Phyllis in GA

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You mention that the LDS Church acquisition teams use a scanner that is “more sophisticated and ruggedized that the typical unit sold to consumers.” Can you give details, model number, etc.?

In one of the replies, you refer to the Hovercam. What’s the depth of field for that?
Will it work on books? Do papers have to be flattened under (optical grade coated flat) glass?

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    —> Can you give details, model number, etc.?

    No. I have seen the LDS group demonstrate one of their scanners several times but do not remember the brand or model number. I am not sure they purchased identical scanners anyway. Over the past several years, I suspect that have purchased newer and newer scanners with better capabilities as they added more and more teams to go out and scan documents. However, the older scanners are most likely still in use by other teams.

    —> In one of the replies, you refer to the Hovercam. What’s the depth of field for that?

    Hover makes several models of book and oversized scanners . The one I wrote about recently is the HoverCam Solo 8. The company provides its specifications at http://www.thehovercam.com/products/solo-8

    —> Will it work on books?

    Yes. it is designed for books, both oversized and regular size.

    —> Do papers have to be flattened under (optical grade coated flat) glass?

    No. The Hovercam Solo 8 doesn’t have any glass.

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Yup, all we need are computers, all right – the internet’s been down here more than it was up all morning, and we’ve had plenty of researchers cranking film. About 4 or 5 hours of interruptions, and only back steadily for about the last 45 minutes or so. Still, our productivity went on just fine.

Plenty of things are on microfilm that don’t interest the big providers at all – they don’t see any money to be made off of them. Much of the online corporate quality control is too shoddy – they skip too many things and then a researcher must resort to the film. Printing from the online is often inferior to printing from film. Certified copies for legal and court purposes, and for many countries’ dual citizenship requirements MUST be made from film, not online.

All of this must be resolved soon, before the online version of research can stand on its own with full credibility. Microfilm may be dying because its customers have assumed its obsolete, but those customers may have abandoned it a little prematurely. Full replacement by computer scans is not ready yet. The hands -on folks know the computer salesmen made too sunny a forecast and too many managers bought into it.

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Reblogged this on the ties that bind and commented:
My hope is that libraries will convert all the microfilm over to digital and nothing will be lost. Bye Microfilm and Microfiche, nice knowing you.

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Just a few words from a vendor:
Fujifilm still manufactures microfilm as does Agfa (but no longer distributes) . Kodak stopped all microfilm ops, sold to Eastman Park who has Agfa making microfilm to their spec (the old Kodak film specs)

Scanned documents are often preserved on micoforms using archive writers so the need for source document cameras has all but disappeared.

some of your questions can be answered at: http://fyiglover.com/ .

Scanning a roll of film should be inexpensive. The costs increases when there is a need for each image to have a unique address and each image to be converted to a pdf or other total text searchable format

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    Thanks for that useful information. It’s always helpful to get information from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

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