Dealing with our Aging and Deteriorating Microfilm Collections

Do you or your local society or does the local library have a collection of microfilms? These films are great for long-term preservation of information but are you aware that microfilms do not last forever? Also, the life expectancy of microfilms and microfiche will be shortened significantly if they are not stored correctly.

Vinegar syndrome is a hazard for acetate-based microfilm which was widely used from 1950-1980. It can cause microfilm to shrink, curl and become brittle, as pictured above. Photo credit: NARA blog post

A recent article by Dave Westcott published in the The Crowley Company website describes the problems and offers solutions. As he writes:

“… most collection managers and archivists could not have provided the required [storage] conditions.”

Referring to past storage conditions, he writes:

“Unknown to the microfilm community at the time, temperature and humidity fluctuations were slowly destroying the quality and integrity of their microforms.

“More specifically, cycling temperature and/or relative humidity within a facility could (and can) be particularly damaging to microfilms. Such fluctuations cause stress in the film and can lead to warping of the base materials and flaking of the emulsions by promoting the movement of moisture in and out of the film media, breaking down the binder that holds the final image material to the support.

“The sad outcome of the past 80 years of creating microforms is that a large percentage of the films generated from the mid-1930s to today continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate and are at risk of permanent loss. Fortunately, there are a number of options for identifying, rescuing and preserving deteriorating microfilms. Like other technical solutions, it’s important to recognize that no one solution fits every need.”

You can read a lot more at

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The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, now part of NARA, has thousands of reels of microfilm of World War II US Army Morning Reports — an absolute gold mine, the only surviving Army records that contain the names of all men who had status changes during the war and also contain records of events of units below battalion level. There is currently no plan at all to digitize these, and the emulsion on some of the master copies has already degraded beyond recovery. These records desperately need digitization, but no one seems to care enough to do so. The original paper records were microfilmed and then destroyed, so that the microfilm is the only remaining record.


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