Members of the genealogy press were invited on a tour today of the LDS Church's warehouse in Salt Lake City that processes orders for microfilm and for other supplies as well. If you visit any of the 4,600+ local Family History Centers and order microfilms for rent, your order is sent electronically to this building. The films are then pulled from the shelf, boxed, and sent to your local Family History Center for your use. This is NOT the place where the microfilms are produced or copied. Instead, it is the warehousing and shipping center. Only copies are kept at this location. All newly-copied microfilms are produced elsewhere, then sent to this warehouse for storage. Upon receipt of an order, the microfilms are boxed and shipped to your local Family History Center.
The tour turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. I was surprised at the amount of automation involved in this one million square foot facility. That's as much space as 19 football fields. Robotic arms pick up the newly-arrived microfilms, carry them to the appropriate shelf, and place the films in a pre-designated shelf location for storage. When an order is received, the same robotic arms retrieve the appropriate microfilms from the shelf, and take them to the shipping department located only a few feet away. All this is done under computer control. A human then packs the box and places a previously-printed shipping label on the outside of the box. The box is then electronically transported to one of 22 shipping docks, awaiting pickup by a shipping company.
At any given time, about 725,000 reels of microfilm are available for shipment with roughly 5,000 reels of microfilm shipped per week. This is a big operation!
Each box of microfilm has a barcode on the box which gets scanned several times during the process to insure accuracy. When asked, the employees said they almost never encounter errors in shipping the boxes. However, when someone ships a roll of microfilm back to the distribution center, they occasionally will place the wrong reel of microfilm in the box and that might not get detected until the box is later pulled and shipped to fulfill a new order. In this case, the box and its barcode label get shipped properly but the contents of the box might be wrong. The distribution center receives reports of five or six such incidents per week. Since they ship about 5,000 microfilms per week, this works out to an error rate of about 0.1%, a remarkably low statistic.
Another fact mentioned on the tour is that FamilySearch has all but stopped making new microfilms. Almost all new "filming" of records in various archives around the world is now done by digital cameras. Almost all the old microfilm cameras have been retired. The newly-captured images are sent electronically to Salt Lake City, processed, and placed online. No microfilm copies are ever made of the newly-captured records. Of course, several million old microfilms are already in stock and converting all those to digital images will require years to complete. In the meantime, FamilySearch will continue to make duplicates, as needed, of those old microfilms.
Once a microfilm has been converted to digital, it will no longer be available for order. The patron can obtain the digital images online immediately and will not need to pay a rental fee. However, it will be years before all microfilms will be digitized.
NOTE: Due to contractual obligations with various archives, FamilySearch expects that a small number of microfilms may never be digitized. Copies of those microfilms will still be made, as required, forever, assuming that blank microfilms can still be purchased from the few remaining film manufacturers, which is doubtful. FamilySearch plans to continue producing copies of those few microfilms for as long supplies are available.
You can see a few pictures of this modern warehouse operation below. Click on any of the pictures to see a larger image.
Here you see the robotic "trains" that move amongst the shelves, picking items from the shelf and transporting them to the roller converyor belt not visible in the foreground. The "trains" move quickly. You wouldn't want to be walking in the aisle when one of these things starts! There is a safety switch that the human uses to kill the power before walking here.