Do Microfiche & Microfilm Have a Future?
Written by: Tim Myatt
Publish Date: Apr 27, 2021
Read time: 8 minutes
It’s fair to say that microfiche & microfilm technology is no longer seen as the future of long-term data storage. In fact, in the last 40 or so years, it has been overtaken by floppy discs, CDs, DVDs hard disc drives and now cloud storage, and yet it perseveres across many industries - certainly more so than floppy discs and arguably more so than original compact discs.
The question of whether microfiche and microfilm have a future is a difficult one to answer.
We’ve written about the key drivers that are encouraging the digitisation of the medium. This would suggest that we believe that the technology is on the way out, but it’s not that clear cut. To us, it does seem like microfiche and microfilm technology likely does have a future.
The eternal medium?
Microfiche and microfilm’s biggest selling point was its longevity. When stored correctly, in optimal conditions, the medium is marketed as capable of lasting for centuries and may well be capable of doing so, but this ignores one major variable: humans.
We’re more than capable of incorrectly closing a box, leaving a door ajar or maintaining the correct humidity in a room. Environmental factors can play havoc on the medium and once rot or embrittlement sets in, for example, the lifetime of the technology plummets rapidly.
Secondly, the market for the readers to access and read microfilm and microfiche is increasingly difficult to obtain. The technology is largely obsolete now. The bulbs to light your film are now far harder to come by and when you do come by them they’re usually second hand. Realistically, how long can old filament lightbulbs last past their expected lifetime?
This is the essential driving force behind microfilm and microfiche’s waning use. It’s quite simply becoming too impractical to use on a regular basis. Last year cemented this impracticality with the growth in employees working from home. The problem with all physical media is that you have to be physically there to interact with it. With central offices closed around the world and makeshift workspaces created in all spare rooms and kitchen tables, even the most resilient microform fans have to concede that the format is not best suited to the challenges of modern business.
Despite the somewhat gloomy prognosis, microform persists. Both as a niche industry and across some major organisations.
Last year, when visiting one of my clients - a leading global automotive manufacturer - I noticed that they still operated their own microfilm station. Storing blueprints and spec documents on to film directly. A growing modern, successful business still using tried and tested, tamperproof technology to secure their data. They may well be an outlier in the grand scheme of things but it shows that the value of the medium remains in certain industries that, historically, would have been advocates of it. Engineering and manufacturing firms greatly favoured storing their technical drawings on microfilm and, in some cases, still do.
Elsewhere, many ardent archivists still don’t believe that there’s a true long term alternative to microfilm. There are arguments to be made that any current digital alternative will face the same fate as microfilm… eternal, but unreadable. This is already the case with some historic scanning projects. In the 80s, The Doomsday Book was scanned onto 12-inch video discs which lasted no more than 15 years. There’s no longer any way for the average patron to access the data from these video discs. Meanwhile the physical, analogue original is still going strong 1000 years later.
So… do microfiche and microfilm have a future? Yes.
Is it a long future? Probably not. Newer storage formats simply have microfiche and microfilm beat on pretty much every metric.
That being said, there’s still a huge ‘but’ that hangs over the statement. Global trends regularly return back to high-quality analogue technologies. Just look at vinyl or even books. Vinyl has a growing place in an audiophile's music collection and despite audiobooks and eBooks and their digital advantages, print books still reign supreme.
The argument for digitising your microfiche and microfilm shouldn’t come from futureproofing your archive and records. The argument is the accessibility and ease of use of digital files. Transferring the data from these files is not only possible, but relatively straight forward. In doing so, you can also rapidly improve your search capabilities. OCR technology means you can transform the scanned images into searchable content cutting down research and access time dramatically.
If you can justify keeping a large physical footprint dedicated to maintaining your microform archive then we encourage you to do so but why wouldn’t you also provide digital alternatives that can help facilitate smarter business decisions.
Do you still maintain a microform archive but would like to start migrating to a digital format? One of our experts would be happy to speak to you.