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Microfilm and Microfiche Storage: An Aging Liability

by | Mar 4, 2022

What is Microfilm:

Remember taking the black and white negatives from your 35mm camera to the local store to be developed? Microfilm goes through a similar process, but in the reverse order—rather than developing film into large images or pictures, documents and records are converted to smaller micrographics of film to condense physical storage requirements.

This was a common practice before digitization or electronic document management systems. Instead of storing the actual paper files, this data could be condensed to microfilm so that it could take up a fraction of the space.


Types of Microfilm:

  • 16mm (smaller documents) or 35mm (large documents) round rolls of film (100’ or 215’)
  • ANSI Cartridge (16mm film in a square, hard plastic case)
  • Non-jacket Microfiche (on sheets in envelopes)
  • Jacketed Microfiche (each plastic sleeve holds up to five pieces of film)
  • COM (Computer Output Microfilm)
  • Aperature Cards


Dangers of Physical Storage of Microfilm:

Considering rolls of microfilm are capable of storing thousands of letter-sized pages or hundreds of drawings on one roll, it was a cost-efficient method to reduce the amount of storage space that would need to be dedicated for these records. If stored correctly, microfilm was a viable space-saver for many organizations.

That being said, these records weren’t always stored properly. In these cases, film could dry out, become brittle and even flake apart. Losses would also occur when an employee misplaced the film or didn’t file it correctly.

One of the worst outcomes, called the “Vinegar Syndrome,” is basically a death sentence for your organization’s microfilm. With acetate-based microfilm, a common film type prior to 1980, a chemical degradation can occur which causes a distinct “vinegar” smell. This is due to the acetate breaking down and turning into acetic acid, which is the same acid that gives vinegar it’s notable odor. Unfortunately, if you smell vinegar near your microfilm, it’s likely already too late—not to mention that it can spread to other microfilm records if not properly quarantined. Any microfilm that was created in the 1980s or before suggests there is a strong possibility that it is acetate-based and susceptible to the “vinegar syndrome.”

Another liability is the fact that microfilm readers are disappearing and technicians to repair them have transitioned to different areas of expertise—the medium as a whole is aging out. Even more damaging can be a natural disaster or theft, which could single-handedly wipe out decades worth of microfilm records.


What is Microfiche?

While microfilm is stored on a reel, microfiche comes in the form of a flat sheet that measures 4”x 5” (slightly larger than an index card). On these sheets, close to 100 8”x 11” pages can be stored.

It was another method employed to help ease the burden of storing paper files, before converting to digital images was an option. The miniaturized images are generally 1/25 (4%) of their original size, significantly increasing storage capacity.

Use cases for microfiche storage include newspapers, books, journals, business records, legal/financial records and various archives. Because of this, microfiche is often found in City and County offices, who have to maintain and preserve decades of historical data.



How is Microfiche Read?

A microfiche reader is utilized to magnify the condensed images. These machines come equipped with a zoom feature so it can be adjusted accordingly to view the images. Libraries often have a microfiche reader to allow visitors to view old newspapers, historical documents, etc.


How is Microfilm/Microfiche Digitized? 

Microfilm and/or microfiche can be scanned and converted to any desired format (PDF, TIFF, JPG, GIF). Once converted, it can be delivered to a hard drive, USB or even be pushed into an existing Document Management System, ECM or cloud provider.

One of the downsides of microfiche records is the fact that they cannot be shared quickly in an email, a roadblock that is becoming an increasingly difficult hurdle for organizations, departments or agencies that chose this route for storage. This has resulted in a strong push for the digitization of these records, to not only make them more secure and accessible, but also more easily sharable within an organization.

OCR (Optical Character Recognition) can also help classify the existing metadata of the documents to make them fully searchable.



Why Digitize and Convert Your Microfilm/Microfiche?

If losing a lifetime of records to a natural disaster or disgruntled employee doesn’t worry you, there are several other reasons that justify budgeting for a conversion project.

Are you storing microfilm/microfiche records in an office? You may think this is a secure and controlled environment, but deterioration is common in these settings.

Are you using an off-site storage facility that does not expose them to light or harsh temperatures? Do you know the steps required to obtain these records in a timely fashion? If you needed a record today, could you fulfil a request in a matter of hours?

These are all factors to weigh when considering a conversion project.

If you aren’t well-versed in the proper storage of microfilm, or want to know additional risks that could be associated with improper storage, we recommend reading Kodak Alaris’ “Storage and Preservation of Microfilms.”

If you are aware of the risks and are ready to safeguard these historical records, contact Western Integrated Systems to get the conversation started.


FREE Microfilm/Microfiche Evaluation!

We are offering a free evaluation of your conversion project, which includes analyzing samples and creating a custom quote for your environment. Please limit samples to (10) pieces of microfiche or (1) roll of microfilm.


Contact Us Today!

Written by WIS



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