Despite 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 processed 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.
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.