Warning: This article contains personal opinions.
This isn't "new news." FamilySearch announced several years ago that they would convert their microfilm holdings to digital images and plan to make those digital images available to everyone online. I have written about this topic several times in the past few years. For background information, you can find my previous articles at http://goo.gl/DNlZw, http://goo.gl/zb0m9, http://goo.gl/WSlEI, http://goo.gl/YURKr, http://goo.gl/8ClfS, and some other articles as well.
What is news is that a new status announcement apparently was issued this week. Several newsletter readers have written to me about the "problem" of FamilySearch converting from microfilm to digital images. I haven't seen the original announcement, but several people have written to me, saying that their local Family History Centers have received notices that after Dec. 31, 2011, FamilySearch will no longer sell microfilm because there are so few requests. (Note the use of the word "sell," not lend. Apparently, microfilms will still be lent for a while longer to Family History Centers but sales will be halted, due to low demand.) Several of my correspondents are worried because they or someone they know "depends" upon microfilm.
Sorry folks, this isn't a problem. It's a solution! I am delighted to hear of this latest announcement and I would suggest that all other genealogists should also be pleased with the news.
Let's face a few facts. First, microfilm is disappearing worldwide and for very good reasons. Few companies manufacture microfilm cameras any more. Even new, unexposed microfilm is disappearing. Only a couple of small companies still manufacture microfilm, and they have already notified FamilySearch and their few other remaining customers that they will be shutting down their manufacturing facilities soon. Where do you expect FamilySearch or anyone else to purchase microfilm five years from now when nobody manufactures it anymore?
Only a few companies still manufacture microfilm viewers, and they, too, are planning to shut down their facilities for lack of customers. In fact, the hottest selling microfilm viewers these days are the ones that have built-in scanners and are used to convert microfilms to digital images.
Microfilm is awkward to use and is hard on the eyes. I've been using microfilm for more than twenty-five years, and my eyes still water and my vision becomes blurry when I stare at microfilm readers for hours. Digital images usually are much easier on the eyes with an occasional exception. Digital images certainly are not perfect, but they are usually better than microfilm. I know I get less eyestrain when staring at a high-resolution computer screen rather than at a microfilm reader.
At many libraries and archives I visit, the microfilm equipment is old and failing and probably will never be repaired or replaced. It is too expensive. A computer is usually cheaper than a microfilm viewer and has many, many more uses.
Another problem is the claimed life expectancy of microfilm. In theory, microfilm can last 200 or 300 years. That's true, IF YOU NEVER USE IT! What good is that? Unfortunately, most of the microfilms that I use in the various libraries and archives have been badly scratched. Usually the damage isn't catastrophic, but it is bad enough to be inconvenient. In contrast, digital images never deteriorate. Patrons can view the same image tens of thousands of times with no degradation of that image.
Finally, the life of expectancy of digital images is much, much longer than microfilm as long as someone makes occasional backups, stores those backups in multiple locations, and copies the images to newer, more modern media every few years. All properly-managed data centers have done that for many years. Tens of thousands of data centers already have been preserving computer records and images for decades. A few centuries seems achievable without any special effort. Ask any data processing professional. Governmental agencies, the military, and thousands of corporations and non-profits are already planning to keep their digital records and information available in digital formats for centuries. Almost none of them use microfilm these days.
In short, very few organizations want to buy microfilm or microfilm viewers today.
Finally, there is the issue of distribution. To view records of interest to you, do you want to go to a repository some distance away, perhaps hundreds of miles away, to look at a microfilm? Or would you rather stay at home, click the mouse a few times on your computer, and view the same image from the comfort of your own home? No travel expenses, no expensive gasoline, no venturing out in the weather, and probably much, much lower expenses. Even better, you will find the digital images are also much easier to share with others or to incorporate into your genealogy database or even into that book you are writing.
Which do you want? Microfilm or digital? Where's the downside of digital images?
Of course, nothing is ever perfect. The conversion of hundreds of millions of images will not happen overnight. The conversion effort will require thousands of hours to accomplish. Indeed, it is possible that the particular image you seek might not yet be available online at the moment you want it. A few microfilm images might be of such poor quality that they aren't readable at all when converted to digital. Of course, in most cases, they weren't readable on microfilm either. Those records may need to be re-created from the originals, which strikes me as a good idea, although expensive. These are all temporary problems that will disappear as conversion efforts progress.
In my opinion, the move from microfilm to digital images is a great idea. It will make more information available to all of us in a more convenient manner than ever before and at much lower costs. I hope that FamilySearch finishes the conversion quickly. Genealogists everywhere and a lot of others will benefit greatly from the improved access and lower expenses.