Davidson's Pocket Map of Minneapolis, 1886, annotated

The Obsolescence of Microfilm

For anyone who called herself a genealogist in the past century, spooling microfilm onto a special microfilm reader and scrolling through its pages was a rite of passage. Finding a record of your long-lost ancestor hundreds of pages into the roll was something to celebrate. But it’s the beginning of the end of the microfilm era. A major sign of the transition appeared a couple days ago.

On Monday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) announced that it would suspend distribution of microfilm rolls on September 1, 2017. The church, which incorporates genealogy into its theology, owns about 2.5 million rolls of microfilm full of genealogical data from all over the world. For the past 80 years, the church has distributed microfilm rolls to designated research centers upon request, to the great benefit of genealogists everywhere.

Microfilm has so many benefits. It condenses information and saves archival space. It allows users to see faithful copies of original documents without risk of damaging the originals (and with very little risk of damaging the microfilm itself.)  It allows the contents of parish record books and other large documents to be sent through the mail at minimal cost. Its material components decay very slowly.

But these are not exclusive benefits. Many of them apply to digital information too. And that, indeed, is the future for LDS collections. According to the official LDS statement, “The change is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology.” The church has already digitized more than 1.5 million microforms, with most of them available online at FamilySearch.org for browsing or searching. The rest, says the statement, “should be digitized by the end of 2020.” Three-and-a-half years of waiting isn’t that long for genealogists. I mean, we’re already halfway to the release of the 1950 census on April 1, 2022, and that seems (to me at least) like it’s just around the corner.

For me, the discontinuation of microfilm distribution raises two questions, one immediate and practical and one more general. First, why not continue distribution of undigitized rolls until 2020 for the sake of accessibility? The whole point of both microfilm distribution and digitization is accessibility, right? Well, LDS has a solid answer to this  question on a related FAQ page. Below is their  explanation. I included it in full because it gets to the heart of the bigger issue of obsolescence.

The microfilm industry has been in decline for a couple of decades since the advent of digitization. The cost of vesicular film used to duplicate microfilm for circulation has risen dramatically while demand has decreased significantly. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult and costly to maintain the equipment, systems, and processes required for film duplication, distribution, and access. It is not feasible for FamilySearch to continue the microfilm distribution service for longer than it already has. Meanwhile, digitization is nearing completion and many of the records FamilySearch has not yet digitized are available on other websites accessible to FamilySearch patrons. By reinvesting resources in digital efforts, FamilySearch can accelerate and improve electronic access.

Microfilm is dying for economic reasons, plain and simple. Microfilm technology is now a niche market. Production equipment, replacement parts, and people with the proper skills to maintain microform technologies are all harder to find, which puts a premium price on the whole niche. It is easy to understand how the church arrived at its current solution.

John in the Minnesota Historical Society Library
Researching family history using microfilm in the Minnesota Historical Society Library.

The other question raised by the LDS discontinuation of microfilm distribution is about the future of microfilm itself. The technology is still widely used in libraries and archives around the country (and LDS microfilm collections will continue to be available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City). I still use microfilm all the time at the Minnesota Historical Society to search for death certificates, naturalization papers, historical Minnesota newspapers, and more.

Microfilm has a few advantages not shared with digital images. Most notably, microfilm is an analog technology. All you need to read it is a good light source and a magnifying glass. Digital archiving, in fact, presents a much more complicated system of preservation in the long run. File types and software change frequently, so that obsolescence is just as much of a threat to digital media. And just like physical objects, digital objects decay with use. Obviously, the advantages of digital media (color, share-ability, ease of access) more than compensate for the new challenges it presents. Yet I wonder if―because of its simplicity―microfilm will continue to have a place in libraries and archives, including genealogical archives, for decades more. Maybe the end of ordering LDS microfilm rolls isn’t quite the end of the microfilm era.

Davidson's Pocket Map of Minneapolis, 1886, annotated

23andMe’s Ancestry Timeline vs. Reality

Beware of ethnicity estimates, especially the new timeline one from 23 and Me. (Here’s another genetic genealogist’s case study of how unreliable 23 and Me’s new Ancestry Timeline is.) It’s nearly impossible to identify from the DNA alone the date one of your ancestors was last “purely” from any one country or ethnic group. There are two issues in play.

First, our genes are wildly mixed up. While different ethnic origins can sometimes be assigned to different DNA segments, this only tells you about the background population from which those genes derive. It cannot on its own identify when a particular person came from that country. The article linked above gives the example that someone with 39% British Isles ancestry might have a parent from England, or, as is actually the case, a bunch of really distant British ancestors up several different lines. If genes from those people happen to be inherited in sequence on a number of different chromosomes, it might appear that the genes originated as a single unit in the recent past rather than the reality that a bunch of different segments were inherited from many different people who ultimately came from the same population centuries ago (i.e., roots in New England).

The second issue is historical. National borders that exist today did not exist a few centuries ago. Migration has always taken place. Putting these two together, you can understand how someone of French extract—let’s call her Angelique—might have a mix of genes that appear to the test to be Scandinavian and Mediterranean (Italian) rather than Western European. For Angelique, the current French border obscures the deeper history of Roman occupation and the Viking settlement in Normandy. Even if everyone in Angelique’s document-able family tree spoke French and lived in northern France, Angelique’s genes suggest that she happened to inherit more genes derived from Roman and Viking fore-bearers than, say, Germanic (Frankish) ones.

Taking this example one step further, it’s impossible for commercial DNA tests like 23andMe or AncestryDNA to determine on their own (without documentary evidence of some kind) whether Angelique’s Mediterranean ancestry in fact came from an underlying Roman genetic pool or instead originated in a smaller population descended from, say, a troop of Italian craftspeople who intermarried with the local French population after migrating to France to help build a 14th-century castle. The history is simply too complex and the DNA too fragmented to tell the difference without serious scientific study of particular genes or without much larger pools of historical DNA to compare with.

In the end, population history and population genetics make something like 23andMe’s ancestry timeline an impossible endeavor. It may make good marketing, but it doesn’t make valid history.