Difficult as it may be to believe in this digital world, the microfilm business is still going strong. ProQuest, which has the largest commercially available microform collection in the world, adds millions of microfilm images each year. The New York Public Library and other institutions continue to house microfilm for their patrons. And companies such as ST Imaging create new products that make microfilm viewing a simple, easy-to-use process for researchers.
Chris Cowan, ProQuest’s VP of product management, believes there are three reasons microfilm has not gone the way of the floppy disk: archival value, ownership ability, and highly specialized microfilm-only information.
Microfilm can last more than 500 years if it is stored under the correct temperature and humidity conditions, making it the best archival medium available, according to Cowan. Digital data actually degrades due to bit rot, the deterioration of electronic programs or files after a period of no usage. “[T]he data begins to erode in little increments, but steadily it gets worse. So there’s a reliability, long term, in being able to have the content” on microfilm, he says.
Librarians can physically add microfilm to their collections, “and it’s not on a subscription type of basis where it’s an annual leasing of access to content,” says Cowan. They can own the microfilm permanently as part of their institutions’ content holdings.
Some information will never be digitized, says Cowan, because digitization is not a feasible venture for every company that owns content. “For instance, with our newspapers at ProQuest, we’ve digitized 40 newspapers from around the globe, and most of it [is] the full backfile of that newspaper’s title. And when you add up those 40 papers, it’s about 30 million pages’ worth of newspaper content. In our vault, for microfilm newspapers, we have over 10,000 newspapers. And about 2 billion pages of content. … [E]ven with 12 years [spent so far] digitizing newspapers, we’re really only getting the tip of the iceberg.”
Denise Hibay, head of collections development at the New York Public Library, says many patrons “on some level still prefer microfilm. I do believe a lot have switched loyalties and have gone to digital as they’ve understood its benefits,” she says. But they “still find the microfilm medium really preferred to browse large quantities of content.”
A Hands-On Product
Pick a color, any color. That’s the promise of ST Imaging’s ST ViewScan II System, a mini-microfilm reader that comes in customized colors.
Patrons can crop and edit microfilm images on the PC hooked up to the ViewScan II and use annotation features such as highlighting. If they need help while using the system, the ViewScan II has video tutorials for each of its functions, as well as options for three modes of use, from basic to advanced. The ViewScan II has had a great response from customers, says Dan Donaldson, director of imaging products at ST Imaging.
Donaldson pioneered the use of a PC to view and capture images from microfilm, instead of using a reader-printer to view images and then scan them into a PC. “And then, when you want to grab the image, instead of it taking several minutes to print out a page … it’s one second. And … you can walk out of the library with all those pages on a thumb drive,” he says. What that does for microfilm as a viable form for content that has not been scanned is invaluable in this day and age, according to Donaldson.
Cowan believes that microfilm’s niche is in graduate studies and faculty research, where researchers want specialized, sometimes obscure, information. He says “the ever-patient family history researchers” will continue to be avid microfilm users as well.
Donaldson also thinks genealogists will do their part to keep microfilm alive: Microfilm “has been and still is the only way to really be able to afford to have thousands of newspapers’ content available to you,” he says.
Hibay believes that even if digitization becomes the norm, microfilm will be the first step in preservation. “In many ways that’s how libraries have developed really unique content: They had a title that maybe they were the only holders of, and they microfilmed it and now they own the master negative to that. And other libraries come to them for that copy. … I think in the digital world, a library will have a unique copy, but they still may want to make a microfilm copy first before they digitize,” she says.
“Microfilm relatively is a stable universe of content, as opposed to the digital world which is now exploding,” says Cowan. “So digital content will continue to be increasingly more important, but there will always be a place for microfilm.”