In the previous post, we went over some of the vulnerabilities of microfilm; both physical vulnerability, and its vulnerability as an information system. In this part, we’ll cover the ways that you can protect your microfilm from decay if you decide to keep it. We’ll also compare it to digital in case you’re thinking about converting your film into digital files.

Part 2 – How to Prevent Microfilm Decay

  1. Environmental Controls: Comprehensive environmental control, including temperature, humidity, light, and air quality, are essential for preventing most forms of damage and decay. 
    1. Temperature: should be kept between 0 C and 18 C; the lower the better.
    2. Humidity: should be kept as low as possible; below 50% at least, ideally below 25%.
    3. Air Quality: should be filtered and regularly assessed for airborne pollutants that will damage the film.
    4. Light: light should be kept to a minimum, and the film should never get any direct sunlight.
  2. Handling Precautions: Anytime you use a film for reference, you risk damaging it or accelerating its decay. 
    1. Don’t: ideally, you should never handle a film after it’s been moved to long-term storage. No matter how strict or comprehensive your precautions are, there is no way to totally eliminate the risk of starting a decay process in a film. Any kind of handling should be minimized as much as possible
    2. Working Copies: a film which is likely to be used for reference more than a few times a century should have working copies and preservation copies so that damage/decay caused by handling can be limited.
    3. Temperature: before handling a film, the temperature in the storage room should be increased gradually up to comfortable temperatures, so that no condensation develops
    4. PPE, but not for you: oils on your skin and moisture from your breath or sweat can affect your films whenever you’re handling them, so it’s best to wear a mask and gloves.
  3. Other storage precautions:
    1. Curate Room Materials: ensure none of the materials in the room are corrosive or acidic in any way. This includes the paint on the walls and cabinets and the material that the cabinets and storage boxes are made out of.
      • Cabinets & Boxes: should be made out of metal or high-quality plastic, not wood or cardboard. Wood products tend to release small amounts of acid and moisture into the air over their life spans.
      • Paint: If the walls in your storage room are painted, ensure that it’s at least three months old, as this is the amount of time it takes for even dry paint to stop releasing pollutant chemicals into the air. 
    2. Store Individually: due to the risk of contagious deterioration, like acetate decay, it’s best to isolate each reel or batch of fiche into its own airtight container. This way decay or damage in any one item can’t spread to the others surrounding it. 
    3. Do Not Stack: Though the reels and plastic sheets may seem physically resilient and sturdy, they should not be stored in any way which puts excess weight on them, like stacking on the same shelf. In long-term storage, the lightweight of other reels above them has enough time to warp and disfigure films at the bottom of a stack. 
    4. Check Regularly: Despite minimal handling being ideal, the subtle and insidious ways in which film deteriorates means that storing your films and forgetting about them until you need them is not an option. Regular check-ups for acidity, air quality, and other risks are necessary to catch deterioration problems early. 
      • If your organization is able to afford ideal environmental controls (i.e. nearly 0% humidity, refrigerator temperatures, high-quality air filters, airtight individual packaging, etc.), deterioration is less likely to start and will progress more slowly if it does. You won’t need to check on them as often.
      • If your organization cannot afford ideal environmental and storage conditions, you’ll need to check up on the films more often. Lower temperatures and humidity levels make problems like mould and oxidization less likely, but they can still develop in non-ideal conditions. 

Recall the claim made by microform enthusiasts, that it can last for 500 years. Though the (relative) recency of their invention prevents us from having evidence of any films lasting this long, it may be turn out to be true. But given the recommended storage precautions, the only way this 500-year mark seems achievable would be to lock your films away in a dark, airtight refrigerator underground, rarely checked at all, and only handled by meticulous, masked and gloved film experts, and never used. If your organization is a well-funded national archive, then that probably doesn’t sound too bad. If you’re almost anyone else, these kinds of precautions probably just aren’t practical. 

So then why would anyone ever use film? 

Paper has a proven, not theoretical, shelf life of nearly 2000 years when well maintained, and digital is far more compact and efficient. If the main advantages of microfilm are compact information storage and longevity, aren’t these advantages completely surpassed by a combination of paper and digital?

The answer is that microfilm strikes a balance between reliability, storage efficiency, and longevity, which makes it perfect for archival purposes. 

Even a poorly managed film library will last a few decades, which is much longer than digital’s 2-5 year maximum on unplugged storage. A well-maintained library may or may not actually last the full 500 years, but there are archives with films created in the 19th century still in good condition, eons compared to digital.

Storage efficiency. Even though digital is more compact than both of them, microfilm really is a lot more compact than paper. In a previous post, we illustrated the efficiency of digital by comparing a single terabyte hard drive, which can store 83 million pages of text, to the size of the stack that much paper would create. If we do the same thought experiment with a microfilm reel, and we pick a high-capacity variety (i.e. 215’ long, dual channel), it can contain over 10,000 images. That’s nothing compared to digital’s 83,000,000 in a terabyte, but 10,000 sheets of paper (if 0.1mm thick) is still a 1-meter tall stack that’s being compressed to a space roughly the size of a hard drive. Multiply that storage ratio across the millions of documents stored by archives and libraries, and you’re saving an enormous amount of space by using film instead of paper. 

Rare duplication. Every time you duplicate a file there’s a chance of losing information to corruption, whether that’s an imperfection on a filming table or a photocopier, or a bad digital read. Even if a film library needs to be refilmed every 30 years (which is a short time compared to a well-maintained library), that’s still many fewer chances for a bad copy than digital. 

Legal reliability. Film is often considered more legally reliable than digital, which also makes it more valuable for archives. Digital information is more and more reliable every year as the technology for copying files continues to improve, but file corruption does still happen. It’s also much easier to secretly tamper with a digital record than a film record, which gives law courts a reasonable skepticism with digital records admitted as evidence. However, built-in metadata systems are improving many courts’ opinions on digital records.

Unlikely target for theft. One of the main disadvantages of film is its inaccessibility; it can take a long time to navigate a physical library of reels to find the exact record you’re looking for, and then scroll through a reel hundreds of feet long until you find the specific document you’re looking for. 

The silver lining of this disadvantage, however, is that information thieves are much less likely to target a film archive. Compared to digital information theft, which can be done instantly and remotely if you’ve got the technical aptitude, stealing information from a film archive would involve breaking into a secure facility, spending hours searching through the directory and scrolling the film, and then getting back out before law enforcement can surround the facility.

So then should you (still) be using microfilm?

That depends on a number of factors, but in general, probably not. The key function of microfilms, the need which they meet better than any available alternatives, is the reliable, compact, long-term storage of large volumes of legally sensitive documents. Archives and libraries tend to still use microfilm because they have enormous volumes of information in their collections, and much of it is often legally significant or confidential. These files also don’t need to be referenced often and need to be as reliable and authentic as possible.

For almost any other organization, microfilm is just not a cost-effective information system. The value it offers is hyper-secure, mass storage of important files that don’t need to be accessed very often. For any business or organization active in the ever-shifting modern economy, an important file that you don’t have rapid access to is a potential risk. Digital alternatives like isolated servers might not be quite as secure as a microfilm vault, but that level of security is well beyond most organizations’ needs and comes with the cost of very slow access times, often multiple hours, sometimes days. 

Should you digitize your microfilm?

Almost certainly. Again, unless you’re an archive, you probably want to have rapid access to any file important enough to keep secure. That’s not something microfilm can offer. Beyond that, digital files are far easier to duplicate, making the longevity of a microfilm reel over a hard-drive something of a moot point. A hard drive can last more than a decade, and the information on it can be transferred to a new drive so quickly that the cost in both money and time is negligible. 

Digitizing your films has the potential to backfire if it’s not done properly, however. Anytime you take your films out of storage you risk beginning or accelerating some form of decay, so digitizing once takes time off their shelf-life. If all the information is converted over perfectly, then this isn’t a problem; but if anything needs to get redone, it will accelerate the decay of those files even further. Additionally, any time files of any kind are handled there’s a small chance of more conventional damage like ripping, tearing, bending, or water damage; so it’s important to make sure your files are well taken care of. 

Consentia has been working with microfilm files for decades, and our film specialists know how delicate and important your files are. For secure, reliable, high-quality digitization services, choose Consentia.