To Microfilm, or Not to Microfilm

14996784713_6598845eab_zDespite the acceleration of new technologies over the last couple of decades, if you ask archivists or records managers about best practices of long term preservation of records, they’ll still say microfilm is a solid choice. Much like paper (which has a life expectancy of thousands of years), microfilm can be stored for hundreds of years, which is a step toward guaranteeing the retention of valuable permanent records. That same long-term life expectancy is not yet achievable with digital preservation because of issues like technological obsolescence and constrained budgets.

To ensure preservation of scanned records with retention periods of a decade or more, the best practice continues to be keeping the original paper copies or microfilm backups. This way, if something happens to the fancy hardware or software system in your ‘paperless’ office, there is still a way to retrieve the long-term records.

Types of Microform

Most people are familiar with microfilm (reels) and microfiche (flat sheets), but earlier types included microcards or aperture cards. At the turn of the 20th century, microfilm was used during wartime to deliver mail more efficiently, and then mid-20th century libraries began archiving fragile newspapers and books. The advent of the Internet didn’t make microfilm obsolete, as it is still commonly used in the government and private sectors for long-term records. Newer formats include ultrafiche, which require special printers and readers but can fit even more documents onto film than traditional formats.

Plenty of Advantages

Let’s look at a few of the many reasons that microfilm is still a highly regarded method of preservation:

  • It’s really small. While some microfilm images can be viewed with the naked eye, most are intended to be a fraction of the original size, which results in less physical space needed for storage. Up to 100 document size pages could be imaged onto one page of traditional microfiche.
  • The life-span is 500+ years. If┬áprocessed and stored to international standards, microfilm is expected to last hundreds of years, which is longer than microfilm has even existed! TSLAC publishes microfilming standards and procedures in Bulletin A for local governments and Bulletin 2 for state agencies.
  • Low value for thievery, high value for courts. While computer systems can be easily targeted by hackers or identity thieves, microfilm vaults are rarely raided for information, which is one reason that some major financial institutions and many government agencies store sensitive records on film. When it comes to proving authenticity, records stored on microfilm (which adhere to the aforementioned standards) are permissible as original records in court per state and local records laws.

Any Disadvantages?

Of course, microfilm isn’t guaranteed to be the best choice for everything. It’s typically not recommended for preservation of records with low demand, short retention periods, and lack of historical value.

  • It’s really small. Although we mentioned that microfilm can be viewed with the naked eye, the image would be tiny and therefore extremely difficult to read without the viewer machine. Add to that the factor that microfilm viewers aren’t widely available for use outside of libraries.
  • Searching isn’t simple. We’re so spoiled with our superior ability to search these days. Even if you don’t personally have a knack for searching, search engines (or librarians!) can usually find relevant information in a relatively short amount of time (even sometimes auto-correcting misspelled queries!) But with microfilm, indexing is likely minimal and you’d have to visually scan the images until you find what you’re looking for.
  • Decreased image quality. Speaking of being spoiled, many people enjoy the crisp, bold photos that we can make with our cell phones, but the quality of images produced on microfilm are less than stellar. Not a big deal for text-only records, but digital preservation would probably be a better choice for retaining collections of photographs.

TSLAC Microfilm Services and Resources

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission, offers a full-service image conversion center catering specifically to the needs of state agencies and local governments. Also, the Texas State Publications Depository Program offers many state publications for sale on microfiche.

For more coverage on the topic of microfilm, check out our 2013 webinar, Using Microfilm for Preserving Electronic Records.

5 thoughts on “To Microfilm, or Not to Microfilm

  1. no one has the machines to read that media. I believe you are talking to Records manages that are not willing to change to a cloud based storage. With cloud based storage that is setup right you can find items in a flash and the media is not going to change any time soon.

  2. Many institutions in Texas – public and academic libraries, state agencies, regional depositories – provide access to microfilm viewing machines.

    We will cover cloud storage in a completely separate blog article. Ultimately, records managers need to be aware of all the options, and this particular article is intended to show that analog preservation still has a rightful place in records management.

    Thank you for your response!

  3. Microfilm is still alive and well. Some agencies are used to processes that include filming. It will take some time and training to change document management processes to a platform that adapts the end to end process of capturing, indexing and archiving a digital copy.

  4. Mike Capricciuolo June 30, 2016 at 11:52 am


    The points of Bonner and Joe are well made. All technologies have strengths and weaknesses.

    Depending on where you look, there are still machines that read the microfilm media plus quite a few adaptive readers that connect to a computer and can read the microfilm and turn it into a more contemporary product (e.g. TIFF, PDF, etc.).

    Nowadays we say “imaging” or “scanning”, but microfilm is actually one of the original “imaging” technologies. The present “digital” media are just logical progressions with attendant improvements as the technology advances.

    I would not characterize those who have not yet adopted “cloud” storage as “… not willing to change..”. It is still relatively new and the trouble with clouds are that sometimes… they rain.

  5. The article is very timely and relevant. Even in this technological savvy age, we still find plenty of paper let alone microfilm and microfiche. So it is important to explore all viable options. Cloud based storage mya be the trend, but some local governments have not made the investment in both technology and people to get there. So records managers have to make do with what they have.

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