Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Microfilm vs. Digital Images: Who wins the battle?

Microfilm viewers at BYU Family History Library, Provo, Utah
I thought I might be through with writing about microfilm, but the comments to my series of posts on the subject have convinced me otherwise. Microfilm is film. Many years ago, filmstrips were quite commonly used to teach classes and sell products. Some of us still have filmstrip projectors stashed away in some storage area. Microfilm and filmstrips are both analog methods of information storage. They also store information linearly. Using a microfilm for information extraction is a complicated process.

Microfilm Storage Container
Digital information storage is the opposite of analog storage. Access to the information can be random and easily accomplished. However, both analog and digital information storage devices are machines and can be complicated to use.

Microfilm Roll
Microfilm is a series of photographs of historical records (or about anything else) on a piece of continuous photographic film. The film is stored on plastic (originally metal) holders commonly referred to as "rolls." The size of the film has been standardized to 35 millimeters and 16 millimeters. The length of the rolls varies with the number of record images stored. The images are viewed, one at a time, by using a microfilm projector, a large box with a light source that projects the image onto a flat surface. The image can also be projected onto an upright screen. [Just a note, it is extremely difficult to find a photo of a microfilm reader or any of the associated media or equipment online and I ended up taking my own photos at the Brigham Young University Family History Library. Copyright protection has evolved from a method to protect authors and works into a system that impedes communication.] Eventually and more recently, electronic microfilm viewing options have been available at some libraries and archives. This is a photo of a ScranPro 3000 setup at the BYU Family History Library. These machines allow the user to make digital copies of the microfilm images.

ScanPro 3000 with computer
Microfiche images are also photographic film but rather than storing the images in a linear roll, the images are stored on a flat sheet of film.

In the past, the microfilm that genealogists have been using comes primarily as rentals from the archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its subsidiaries including FamilySearch, although there are also other historical microfilm collections that make rentals available, such as those from the U.S. Library of Congress and the U.S. National Archives.

Microfiche Carrousel
Here is an important point. In all the years that microfilm has been available, most recently from FamilySearch, the film had to be rented and viewed either at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah or more recently, at one of the Family History Centers scattered around the world. Until quite recently, if you wanted to view a particular roll of microfilm (or microfiche), you had to go to the Family History Center, order the film and pay the rental fee, wait until you were notified that the film had arrived, travel back to the Family History Center to view the film and then start the process all over again with another roll of microfilm. Some of the Family History Centers could also store the film "permanently" at the Center for future use for an additional fee. Recently, renting the film had been moved online, but viewing and storing were still necessarily done at a Family History Center.

Microfilm return shelf
I have reviewed this process in detail because I don't think too many people today understand how long and involved the process really is and was. Once you obtained the microfilm, you had to physically load the roll into the reader, turn on the light and then turn a physical crank on the side of the machine to view each image. Some viewer had motor-drive cranking options. Oh, and there was a selection of lenses for viewing the film at magnification. Unless you went through this process frequently, you had to relearn every step each time you ordered and used microfilm. Threading the microfilm onto the viewer was always a challenge.

Microfilm Viewer
Viewing microfilm was a labor intensive activity unless you were lucky enough to have one with a motor-drive. Until the advent of digital copy devices, reproduction of any one of the images was expensive and time-consuming. You either had to take another photo of the image with varying degrees of quality or copy the information down by hand. To view any one image, you had to crank your way through hundreds or thousands of other images. When you finished using a roll, you had to physically crank all the way back to the beginning of the roll and start all over again with another roll.

Microfiche Viewer
OK, so that gives you an idea of what it took to read one roll of microfilm. Microfiche viewers were even more complicated and viewing a particular image took manual dexterity as well as learning how to use the machine.

At this point, I could then conclude that using digital images is much less complicated than using microfilm, but that would be an oversimplification. Digital images of the microfilm have to be viewed on your computer and you have to know how to use a computer, how to access the internet, how to use the program (or find other digital images of historical records) and understand how to search and view the individual images. But here are the main differences:

  • The images of the microfilm are no longer subject to rental fees; they are freely viewable online.
  • The waiting time for receiving a film has been eliminated and all of the images remain online for viewing at any time of day or night.
  • Billions of images are now available to be viewed from any computer or device that can access the internet.
  • No more complicated microfilm or microfiche viewers. The images can be rotated, magnified, and enhanced by your computer.
  • You can easily capture images from the microfilm for later use or to act as sources for supporting genealogical research.
  • The online digital images can be randomly accessed. 
  • Those digital images that are only viewable in a Family History Center or at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah are the exception rather than the rule. Viewing them in a Family History Center or at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is no different than viewing microfilm but the vast majority of the online images are freely available online.
The age of microfilm has now passed. Some of it will be around for a long time, but as genealogists become more comfortable with digital images and those images become more readily available, then using microfilm will become a lost art. Digital images will inevitably win the battle. 

1 comment:

  1. My son's Eagle Scout project is to organize and train people to read through the 1700+ films on permanent loan in our local Family History Center and send FamilySearch the ones that are now available online.

    We are very (very) pressed for space, and now that the project is nearing completion, it looks like we will be able to get rid of three of the four microfilm cabinets in our small space, leaving room for an additional computer for patron use. The largest cabinet is staying, but that means that as of today, more than half of the films that have been in the center, some for well over a decade, are now available online.

    I started the project to read through the films about half a year ago and made it through about three drawers before I estimated that the project would take me more than 60 hours and stopped the project until the Scouts could pick it up. Today we went back and read through those first three drawers again, films I had checked half a year ago, and found out that more than three-quarters of them were now available online. In just six months! It's really remarkable seeing the wide range of records available online. It's a great wealth of historical information.

    An occasional patron complains about using digital rather than microfilm versions of the records, but we just smile and nod and try to help them learn to use the computers.

    Next is the subject of books. We started with two bookshelves full, mostly random donations from patrons or church members. We keep the ones of local interest, including ones pertaining to the home countries of the major ethnic groups in the region, but any books outside that category that are available on go to a local library.

    It's been a couple of years since I was called as director of this Family History Center, and we've seen some remarkable changes in just that time. We no longer handle money and starting soon we'll no longer handle microfilm shipping, and I'm looking forward to spending more time on patron outreach and staff training.