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.