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Despite technological advances, microfilm still a reliable method of record keeping

POSTED: November 1, 2009 12:29 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Library Director Adrian Mixson pulls out a spool of microfilm before threading it into the viewing machine at the Hall County Library System main branch. In addition to microfilm, the main branch also uses the less common microfiche.

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Microfilm is an unlikely survivor of the digital revolution.

Most analog technology has became obsolete as pictures, movies and music can now be stored digitally without the use of clunky tapes or film.

But for many, microfilm remains the most reliable and inexpensive method to keep records.

Libraries, newspapers, law firms, governments and genealogists are among those that still rely on microfilm or microfiche records.
Microfilm is a roll of 35- or 16-millimeter film that holds images reduced to a fraction of their original size. Microfiche holds reduced images on 4-by-6-inch sheets.

Adrian Mixson, director of Hall County Libraries, said many pieces of unique local history are stored at the Gainesville library on microfilm.

“We have early church histories, city directories and pieces of newspaper that go back to the late 1800s in Hall County and the immediate area here,” Mixson said.

With a projected shelf life of up to 500 years, microfilm is one of the safest methods for storage, though Mixson said there is always a need for a backup.

“I don’t know if I have the only copy of these records or not,” Mixson said. “If I do, it’s a serious concern because my storage over here is not ideal. That’s records and history of Hall County that I’d sure hate to see us lose.”

Mixson said though many are using digital archive systems, microfilm is still the most trusted medium for backup storage.

“Digital technology is stored in chips and used to be stored in data tape,” Mixson said. “Hard drives get damaged. They develop glitches; software gets corroded.”

Mixson said during his time working in Florida, he heard about a naval base that transferred service records from microfilm to data tapes and discarded the old records. Within five years, some of the tape had started to deteriorate.

“They were literally losing people,” Mixson said.

Bill Doudnikoff, vice president of The Library Store Ltd., sells readers for microfilm and microfiche. Though business is not as booming as it once was, he still sells around 5,000 machines every year.

“It’s still being actively used,” Doudnikoff said. “It’s not as popular as it once was but it’s still being done.”

Doudnikoff said much of what he sells now are digital machines that scan images from microfilm onto a computer. They can then be used for electronic databases or saved onto a CD or flash drive.

“A lot of the sales are replacements,” Doudnikoff said.

“The big seller these days are digital units.”

There is also a technology known as computer output microfilm that takes information out of computers for storage on microfilm, freeing up space on hard drives.

“People have been talking about the death of microfilm for some time, but it’s still hanging on,” Doudnikoff said

Toby Graham, director of the digital library of Georgia and the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia said unlike other analog storage, microfilm does not compete with digital technology.

Microfilm archives are kept for security and longevity while digital ones were assembled for easier use and greater access.

“The two are not at odds,” Graham said.

“It really is a combination of digital and microfilm. We’re looking at a hybrid approach.”

The University of Georgia Library has a staggering 20 million newspaper pages stored on microfilm.

“The microfilm goes back to the first issue of the first newspaper, the “Georgia Gazette” from Savannah in 1763,” Graham said.

The university’s library participates in a nationwide effort known as the Georgia Newspaper Project, part of the U.S. Newspaper Project, to catalog 200 current newspapers.

“The microfilming we do at the library is newspaper filming,” Graham said.

“We generate around 3 million pages of microfilm every year.”

With that kind of volume, microfilm is the best method of preservation.

“It’s an old technology, but just from a preservation standpoint all you need to view microfilm is a magnifying glass and light,” Graham said.

For newspapers to endure over time, they must be recorded to microfilm because they are printed on brittle, acidic paper.

Graham said newspapers are like the informal history books of the state.

“If you think about Georgia’s historical newspapers as a single collections it would certainly be among the most important collections on Georgia’s history and life,” Graham said.

“It records events in towns and cities all across our state and for counties that, say, may have lost their courthouse in a fire or for which documents of a period or event were lost through time, these newspapers stand as the lasting record of the history.”

Though newspapers today are methodically preserved, older records can be spotty.

Mixson said some early editions of The Times are missing from the library’s microfilm archives.

“If you only stuck with the local newspaper, the Titanic never sunk,” Mixson said. “For many years, 1918 didn’t exist.”


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