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. One problem: the manufacturers of microfilm equipment are disappearing. We soon will not be able to purchase either microfilm viewers or cameras. Now one of the major producers of microfilmed information has announced that it is getting out of the business.
ProQuest has always been one of the largest providers of microfilmed information. The company was founded as University Microfilms, Incorporated, (UMI) and then later merged with Bell & Howell. The company first provided copies of university dissertations and other scholarly materials.
The name was also changed to ProQuest, and the company greatly expanded its offerings. ProQuest now makes both digital and traditional archiving products for libraries, universities, K-12 schools, and businesses, such as car dealerships. The company is best known in genealogy circles as the provider of HeritageQuest Online, a large online database service that sells access to digitized images of U.S. census records, the revolutionary War Pension applications, more than 25,000 local and family history books, and the records of PERSI (PERiodical Source Index), a listing of more than 1.6 million genealogy and local history articles.
ProQuest's HeritageQuest Online service is available at most major libraries as well as at many specialized genealogy libraries. The service is not sold directly to the general public, but many genealogists can access the data from home by using a library's "gateway" service.
ProQuest expects to keep and expand its many online services, including HeritageQuest Online.
The announcement of shedding the company's microfilm business was made Thursday during the company's earnings call with financial analysts. The announcement was not a surprise to many as ProQuest has transitioned to a digital products company. "We're about to take another major step in our transformation,'' said Chairman and CEO Alan Aldworth of the company's educational products division. He added that the microfilm business, which has reported sluggish sales, has become a "drag on resources.''
This is another nail in the coffin of microfilm. The manufacturers are leaving the business, microfilm producers such as ProQuest are leaving, and it is now becoming difficult to find a company that even sells blank microfilm or that will develop such films.
As announced last year, the Mormon Church is changing from microfilm to all digital records, in part because they can no longer purchase microfilm cameras or maintain their aging units already in the field. The cameras are mechanically complex, and no one makes the parts any more. When the cameras fail, the Church has to manufacture its own parts.
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 many more years. However, the move is already underway to convert microfilms to digital images. You can read an article about the Mormon Church's efforts in that direction at http://tinyurl.com/8dtz2.
As the microfilm producers keep converting to digital images and as the existing units eventually need service with non-existent parts, microfilm viewers will disappear from libraries, even the big genealogy library in Salt Lake City. 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.