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.
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.