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The Problem with Microfilm: Document Scanning Services Warn of Fadeout

Newspapers, or some forms thereof, have existed in as early as the Roman times, keeping societies updated on the latest events within and beyond kingdoms and empires. However, the technique for preserving them didn’t come until the 20th century when the New York Times, in 1935, began capturing their issues in microfilm.

moving to the digital age

The issues are probably still readable. Under the right conditions, microfilm can last for more than half a millennium. Sadly, keeping the conditions right is easier said than done.

One of the major disadvantages of microfilm lies with accessibility. Constantly putting microfilm pieces into a viewing machine puts stress on the delicate material, making it less readable over time. The Norfolk Public Library in Virginia faces this problem with their vast collection of the Norfolk Daily News back issues, the earliest of which are dated 1888.

Jessica Chamberlain, the library’s director, talks to the Norfolk Daily News’ Grace Petersen about two problems with microfilm. The first is wear and tear:

“Every time the film is looked at, you take the film, and you squeeze it through two glass plates. So if there’s a piece of dust, dirt, or anything, it can get scratched,”

The second problem is difficulty in finding the information being sought.

“It’s not just people being uncomfortable with the technology of the microfilm reader. You can’t just put in your name and see all the things that come up,”

In light of this, the library allocated more than $50,000 for microfilm scanning services. It would take months before all 449 microfilm rolls could be digitized for PC viewing. More than a third of these rolls have already been shipped to a scanning facility and should be available for viewing at the library either by May or June this year.

Documents, whether on paper or microfilm, won’t suffer from degradation when converted to electronic files. Libraries and companies engaged in digitizing old issues of newspapers and magazines turn to quality document scanning services to protect their paper copies. Google’s digitization project, which ran from 2008 to 2011, is one example of a successful process.

Some services, like Spectrum Information Services, take imaging quality up several notches with Virtual ReScan (VRS) technology. Introduced by imaging firm Kofax in 1998, the VRS technology allows scanners to capture almost any kind of document with any level of quality. This preserves many colors and highlights that a non-VRS scanner may censor out.

A microfilm may last for several lifetimes, but its contents—under constant wear and tear—may not. It’s important to digitize these information before they are lost forever.

(Source: Moving to the digital age: Microfilm to be digitized, Norfolk Daily News, March 21, 2014)

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