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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is Microfilm Really Dead or Just Mostly Dead?


The announcement by that all of its 2.4 million rolls of microfilm have been digitized does no begin to herald the end of microfilm. I am told that still backs up its data to microfilm and will continue to do so for many years. In addition, those who claim that microfilm is dead are denying reality. For example, if you want most of the documents that are available from the United States National Archives, you need to rent their microfilm copies. 

Here is a screenshot of part of the National Archives' microfilm collection that can be ordered online.

The microfilm collection held in the Granite Vault and available in the Salt Lake Family History Library isn't going away anytime soon. Many researchers need to check the microfilm when the digital copies are unreadable or missing pages (yes, this does happen). 

Additionally, the Brigham Young University Family History Library has an extensive collection of microfilms and microfiches that is not all available readily online. Don't expect to see all the microfilm readers in the BYU Family History Library disappear suddenly. 

Unlike some old digital formats, microfilm is still usable and its life-span is 500 years. Do you really think that your present computer files will still be readable in 500 years? I have a bunch of old CDs and other storage devices that cannot be read by any device or program presently available. It is only through the process of migrating my data periodically to newer devices and formats that the files have been saved. 

Let's not get too enfusive about the end of microfilm. Some of us are glad the technology is still available and usable. 


  1. My take is "nearly dead but terminal". It is just a matter of time.

    Regarding the National Archives, it ended its microfilm rental program in 2009. And NARA no longer sells copies of its microfilm. Instead, they will sell you a DVD containing a roll's set of images.

    Microfilm lasts for far less than 500 years in most cases. First, because most microfilm held by libraries is not silver halide emulsion film, but is instead diazo. Silver halide that has been processed/developed and stored under ideal conditions (such as those at the Granite Mountain Records Vault) will indeed last for about 500 years. But prints of those films made with a diazo emulsion are predicted to only last for about 100 years -- and only that long if stored under ideal conditions (which most libraries don't have) and if they are not subject to a lot of usage (which, in the past, was a major issue for popular microfilm rolls, such those containing newspapers).

    I worked for two years (in the early 1990s) at the BYU Lee Library's microforms area and despite our best practices (such as leaving open drawers in every film cabinet overnight at least once a week so that the vinegar-smell gas that decaying microfilm emits could dissipate), there was still microfilm that had to be replaced with new rolls after just a few decades of life.

    1. Thanks for the longer explanation. Migration of the data to newer methods of storage is really the only solution. My point in writing was that the records are only partially indexed and even cataloged.