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?
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 $471,000 depending on electronic storage costs. Remember, while computer storage is currently cheap, hardware, software and specialized computer staff are not inexpensive. Also, you may need multiple versions of the digital file: an uncompressed preservation or master file for the longterm, an access copy for viewing, a searchable file (OCR or optical character recognition) which may be rather large, a thumbnail view, etc. Now your storage costs will rise even more. So, digital imaging is exponentially more expensive. We recommend that you calculate costs, risks, advantages, and disadvantages of these options before selecting one media (paper, microfilm, digital) or a combination for your records. Be aware that as image repositories grow, performance to retrieve, view, and print can slow down dramatically.
Which format is better?
- If you have paper that must be kept, but is rarely referenced (pulled from storage), leave it in paper for its retention period.
- If you have paper that is a vital record, copy or microfilm it to reduce the risk of loss in an emergency or disaster.
- If you have paper that is both vital and permanent and often referenced, use both microfilm and digital imaging to protect, preserve, and easily access.
The reason microfilm was important in the first place was as a preservation tool for recorded history. A microfilm image of a newspaper or an historic map, for example, preserves that image for estimates of over 500 years, and is therefore quite stable and enduring. It is a simple, usable tool for future generations that can be used in tandem with other media. Microfilm can be digitized for ease of access, and digitized images can also be microfilmed. It is truly the best format to protect our history.
|Media||Equivalent||Unit price monthly||Annual Storage||Filming/ Scanning||Total storage for 50 years||Grand Total|
|Paper||500 cubic feet||$.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:
- Texas State Records Laws for state agencies and administrative rules on microfilming and electronic records – State Bulletins http://www.tsl.texas.gov/slrm/recordspubs/state.html
- Texas Local Government Records Act for local governments and administrative rules on microfilming and electronic records – Local Bulletins http://www.tsl.texas.gov/slrm/recordspubs/local.html
- Texas State Records Management Manual – geared to state agencies, but this covers many helpful topics – http://www.tsl.texas.gov/slrm/recordspubs/rmm.html
- Georgia State Archives – Advice #2 –Digital Imaging what happens to the paper record? http://www.sos.ga.gov/archives/pdf/records_and_information_management_services/ArchivesAdvice2.pdf – not exactly how Texas does this, but touches on some of the issues surrounding the topic
- Despite technological advances, microfilm still a reliable method of record keeping” – The Gainesville Times, November 1, 2009 http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/archives/25447/