by AndrewMc | 1/27/2009 09:49:00 PM
A few years back I happened to be riding on the elevator in the National Archives. I was in the car with two long-time [and names-withheld] archivists, who were discussing the problem of aging microfilm becoming unreadable. The conversation went something like this (from memory)

Archivist #1: Well, a lot of that microfilm is becoming unreadable--it's deteriorated so badly it won't be usable in 20 years.

Archivist #2: Yeah, but after they filmed it in the 1930s and 1940s, they threw away the originals. So what can you do?

At this point I interrupted with "Really? Are you serious?" To which I got the reply "Yep, it mostly got tossed out in the trash, hauled to a dump. Millions of records. Some stuff was picked up by private collectors. But it's gone."

I about died.

What's on your mind?

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/28/2009 10:50 AM:

We're doing the same thing with digitization.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/28/2009 11:10 AM:

What they should do, of course, is stabilize all the original microfilms, make copies of them, and then digitize the copies. But I guess they don't have funding for that.


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/28/2009 12:25 PM:

For many microfilm collections it's too late. There weren't "originals" in any sense of a preserved copy that sat untouched.

Even so, microfilm deteriorates even if unused.

As Ahistoricality points out, we're doing it with digitization right now. Hopefully we're keeping originals this time.


Anonymous Maarja on 1/29/2009 6:28 PM:

Jeremy, you're right generally that funding is very tight at NARA. I don't see that changing for a federal civil agency with its mission, however much we historians cherish it.

Andrew, that's an interesting story. Was this at Archives I or Archives II? Microfilm takes up less space than paper, of course. If some original documents were disposed of in past decades, it probably was done to reduce the volume of stored material. The government expanded greatly during FDR's years in office. Although only a small percentage of federal paperwork is considered permananet in terms of records management, NARA really struggled with the "paper mountain" after World War II.

As to to the digital age, for many reasons, I do think there are going to be gaps in in some institutional records and definitely in some personal materials of a type a family might once have preserved.

Microfilm is supposed to be one of the best preservation media since it is stable and has a pretty long life. CDs only have a short life in terms of preservation. Thumbdrives and SD cards are iffy, also.

Archivists have been struggling with migration and emulation for some time now. It's not just the storage media, there are potential problems with hardware and software, as well. I've previously mentioned here the CD of H. R. Haldeman's diaries which Sony published and put on sale in 1994. It won't kick off on modern day computers because Sony set it up to start with video clips. Unfortunately, the program looks (in vain) for a mid-1990s Quicktime 1.1.1 driver which only 10-15 year old computers might still have on their hard drives. I've seen academic libraries state that they own the Haldeman diaries CD but have no equipment on which it can be read.

Unless people migrate electronic data files, and think ahead and preserve data in formats that don't rely too heavily on proprietary software, there's no telling how much will be lost among the records young scholars are creating these days.


Anonymous Maarja on 1/29/2009 6:48 PM:

I should have mentioned that the Haldeman CD freezes up when the program searches for the video clips that were set to run before the table of contents opened up. The program just locks up altogether. If you look at the individual files, you can listen to random audio clips. But you can't get into the program which lets you read and search textual entries. I still can use the CD because I have access to an older computer, fortunately.


Blogger Digital Film Solutions on 2/06/2009 10:10 PM:

Your right - the need to constantly change and update media (Microfilm to Floppy Disk, Floppy Disk to CD's, CD's to Hardrives, Hardrives to what ever technology comes next). The good news is that the ease of data migration is getting more seamless as the years progress.

In fact, old microfilm records can now be scanned to digital and accessed in the same way as the documents that are being digitized today. Digital Film Solutions specializes in converting microfilm and microfiche records to digital for long-term preservation and ease of access.

You can read more about our services online at

We scan microfilm, microfiche and aperture cards.

Josh Nelson


Blogger AndrewMc on 2/07/2009 7:28 AM:

Microfilm can of course be scanned. But the scan will only be as good as the original. If the originals are faded, cracked, or otherwise degraded, we have simply traded one medium for another.

Paper still seems to work best and last the longest. So, originals ought to be preserved, while researchers should access the copies except in cases where the copies aren't good enough.