Why do we still need microfilm?

By Jan Ferrari, Director of State and Local Records Management and State Records Administrator

I love digitization! I have used digitization to share interesting or vital information online, and I recognize its importance in providing access to archival materials that would be damaged by handling. As a backup medium, it can be very useful as well.

However attractive digitization may be in our current technological environment, I value its hard-working counterpart, microfilm, even more highly.

Why is microfilm still relevant?
It may not seem obvious at first, since we have been told that digitization has replaced microfilm as the more current and valuable media. Part of the popularity of digital images is in increased speed and ease of access to current data for public consumption (i.e., Public Information Act requests). Part of its success is also due to the power of technological advance to woo us into new markets, and we have been wooed very well. What if all your historical records were digitized? Doesn’t this sound like the proper tech savvy way to manage valuable records for the indefinite future?

Unfortunately, we tend to minimize the risk that “archived” digital files can and do become corrupted, unstable or even lost, risking the validity of recorded history. How many backups in how many locations are necessary to preserve these records? How much will it cost to continuously upgrade hardware and software for the next ten years?

Comparing costs
So, let’s do a simplified comparison over fifty years for storing paper, for microfilming and storing film reels, and for digitizing and storing an electronic file (table below).  Let’s say we have one million pieces of paper (printed on one-side).  This would fill up records storage boxes equal to 500 cubic feet.  If microfilmed, it would fill about 400 reels that would fit in 1.5 cubic feet of space!  That’s less than 1% of the physical space of the paper.

However, compare the costs.  While the boxes would cost less than $6,000 to store for fifty years and the microfilm would cost under $10,000 in that time period, the cost to microfilm is almost $42,000 as a one-time cost.  This makes microfilm almost 9 times as expensive as the paper.  So, why microfilm?  Microfilm is known as a preservation strategy in an eye-readable format that can be digitized multiple times, if needed.  It is also a useful way to protect vital records with a secure backup copy in a remote location.

What about digitization?  Digital scanning for permanent materials is much more expensive than routine day-to-day scanning.  In addition to special handling or conservation of older materials, it is important to create electronic image files that are rich in detail, often with higher dots per inch (dpi), which take up more electronic storage space.  While a 200 dpi scan of a letter-sized document can be 50 kilobytes (kb), a 600 dpi scan could be 150 kb.  If the scan requires grayscale, bitonal, color and other settings, the file size will continue to grow.  The same million images now could cost from $267,000 to $471,000 depending on electronic storage costs.  Remember, while computer storage is currently cheap, hardware, software and specialized computer staff are not inexpensive.  Also, you may need multiple versions of the digital file:  an uncompressed preservation or master file for the longterm, an access copy for viewing, a searchable file (OCR or optical character recognition) which may be rather large, a thumbnail view, etc.  Now your storage costs will rise even more.  So, digital imaging is exponentially more expensive.  We recommend that you calculate costs, risks, advantages, and disadvantages of these options before selecting one media (paper, microfilm, digital) or a combination for your records.  Be aware that as image repositories grow, performance to retrieve, view, and print can slow down dramatically.

Which format is better?

  • If you have paper that must be kept, but is rarely referenced (pulled from storage), leave it in paper for its retention period.
  • If you have paper that is a vital record, copy or microfilm it to reduce the risk of loss in an emergency or disaster.
  • If you have paper that is both vital and permanent and often referenced, use both microfilm and digital imaging to protect, preserve, and easily access.

The reason microfilm was important in the first place was as a preservation tool for recorded history. A microfilm image of a newspaper or an historic map, for example, preserves that image for estimates of over 500 years, and is therefore quite stable and enduring. It is a simple, usable tool for future generations that can be used in tandem with other media. Microfilm can be digitized for ease of access, and digitized images can also be microfilmed. It is truly the best format to protect our history.

Table: Cost Comparisons of 1,000,000 Images Kept for 50 Years
Media Equivalent Unit price monthly Annual Storage Filming/ Scanning Total storage for 50 years Grand Total
Microfilm 400 reels $.04/reel $192.00 $42,379.50 $9,600.00 $51,979.50
Paper 500 cubic feet $.198/cf $1,188.00 none $59,440.00 $59,440.00
Digital 1 50 gigabytes $24.00/GB $1,200.00 $87,000.00 $60,000.00 $147,000.00
Digital 2 1,000,000 images $.00064/each $7,680.00 $87,000.00 $384,000.00 $471,000.00

These equivalents were calculated based on: 2,000 single-sided 8.5”x11” sheets per cubic foot; 2,500 images per microfilm reel (16mm -100’ – 24X); 2,000 pages = 100 megabytes; Microfilm storage box = 3.75”x3.75”x1” = .003742 cubic feet each; 400 microfilm storage boxes = 1.5 cubic feet

Assumptions:  Paper storage, microfilm storage, and microfilming with silver duplicate at State Records Center prices; Digital 1 and Digital 2 is imaging only at $.087/each at 600 dpi (does not include custom setup, indexing, document preparation, OCR, and other items that may be needed for a full imaging project); Digital 1 storage on state contract (does not include backup copies, future migration, media refresh); Digital 2 storage on state contract for image repository hosting

Resources and reading:

6 thoughts on “Why do we still need microfilm?

  1. I absolutely agree with everything Jan says here. In fact, the first version of the Texas Heritage Digitization Initiative’s Standards and Guidelines explicitly recommended against digitization as a preservation tool for precisely her reasons. Now, digitization has its uses, and digitization for access can be a wonderful thing. If you choose to digitize for access, though, I still recommend that you print the digital images to microfilm as an aid to long-term preservation. The simple truth is that we don’t understand digital preservation yet. There are simply too many unknowns! We need to explore this area more to preserve the many materials that are born digital and which cannot easily be captured in print or microform, but for relatively straightforward imaging projects, microfilm is the preservation method of choice.

  2. I am a true believer of microfilm as the preferred storage medium for vital and permanent records as you never have to keep updating the technology to ensure the digitization is readable. Remember microfilm will always require only a light source and magnification source which will never disappear.

  3. Hi
    I work for the Town of Clarkstown- The Assessor’s Office
    Our office has a old model Microfiche machine.
    model: PC Printer 70M
    We have old property information on the Microfiche Machine
    We have not been able to replace the Toner for it.
    Do you know of a place where I can have them made into digital images.
    Thank You

  4. Hi Arlette,

    A great resource to find a digital imaging vendor is the ARMA buyer’s guide, which provides contact information and description of services. We cannot recommend any specific vendors, but check with your local ARMA chapter to see if they can provide reviews or ratings for vendors. Your regional chapter is likely ARMA Metro NYC. We recommend that you seek multiple reviews/ratings of a vendor before signing a contract, and make sure your city as well as the vendor does quality control on the imaging before disposition of the original records.

  5. Microfilm still has it’s use, but records need to be preserved in their original format: color. The 19th century records of the Civil War used different colored inks, stampings, pencil notations, etc. that are deleted from old grayscale microfilm. There is a new microfilm that is color and has the same shelf life of the old grayscale microfilm.

    History happened in color, and if you are going to pull in the younger generation to history, and the fact that old grayscale microfilm is a low resolution and does not provide access to all of the data on documents, there has to be a migration to color.

    No one wants to look at microfilm on a reader, and they sure don’t want to look at it on a computer screen. I have not seen any microfilmed images online that provide sufficient resolution to make a good enough image to view.

    Newspapers are fine in black and white, but digitizing records in color at 24 bit and 600 dpi will ensure a long shelflife and a true representation of the original document.

  6. microfilm is the only long term preservation media that has been tested and proven. in Africa and Kenya in particular where i come from our national archives has really tried in microfilming newspapers and national heritage records but this is not enough. Other government institutions need to follow suit and microfilm information that needs to be preserved in order for our future to be guaranteed in terms of information security.

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