Saturday, November 26, 2011

How Much Microfilm are We Losing?

During my morning routine I regularly read articles shared on Twitter by Deb Ruth and other genealogy colleagues. This morning I was reading an article from called "No Place Like Home" by Charity Vogel. It's an article about a woman who was an archivist for the Smithsonian and traveled the world only to find that she ultimately wanted to settle in her small home town of Cherry Creek in Western New York.  The article goes on to detail all that she has done to transform the historical scene in Cherry Creek.

What popped out at me was this line,

"Researching the history of her own home and other structures and incidents in Chautauqua County -- in part by using old copies of the Cherry Creek News from the 1880s through the 1930s, which she found in the local museum on 17 rolls of decaying microfilm and has since had converted to a digital format."

Decaying microfilm?!!

Ok, I admit, when it comes to microfilm my view of the  world is fairly limited.  My general sense, though I know it is erroneous, is that all microfilm comes from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

This article sent a shock wave through my body.  What if the microfilm in Cherry Creek is unique and copies aren't held by the Family History Library?  The thought of decaying microfilm is so scary.  How many small historical societies have film that might be disintegrating?  Are we losing important resources?

In this particular case Sharon Howe Sweeting, the subject of the story, came to the rescue and converted the microfilm to digitial format.

That makes me wonder too.  How did she convert the microfilm?  Did she do it herself?  Did she have to go to a company that converts microfilm?  Is it expense or difficult to do?

I hope that this one historical society with its decaying microfilm is not typical of historical societies in New York or beyond.  If it is, I hope that we can save the deteriorating microfilm before it's too late.  I can't help but selfishly think of my own New York ancestors and have fear for my ability to solve my brick walls. In this one case, the folks of Cherry Creek were lucky.  Their microfilm was saved.  But how many won't be so lucky?

Photo Credit: Photo by Deborah Fitchett and used under the creative commons license.


  1. Hi Marian,
    Small towns aren't the only places there are micro film. I know in the mulitmedia room at the HS I attended (a few years back) they had some periodicals on micro film. With budget cuts to the school systems in these hard times it makes we wonder about these as well.


  2. My hometown's local newspaper converted their old papers to microfilm. The library had copies of most, but not all, of them. My sister used to work for the newspaper so I had access to their store of was kept in the attic of the building and it was hot as can be up there in the summertime. My hometown isn't tiny, but it's by no means a big city. Sadly, they don't care much about preserving their history anymore.

  3. Thanks for the food for thought, Marian. Definitely something to think about as we have to continue updating our preservation materials to stay up-to-the-minute. It seemed like just a few years ago we were transferring home movies to VHS and now need to transfer that to digital.

    Cherry Creek is not too far from where I live either...

  4. There are different types of microfilm. Each type has a different quality. The Family History Library is not the only entity producing microfilm. Our library (when budget times were better) often sent things to the Tennessee State Library & Archives or the Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention to be microfilmed. We've also purchased some that was produced in Knoxville for special collections. Newspapers are often microfilmed at a state level.

  5. I do research for the local gene society and besides the microfilm for newspapers in the library we have census and a lot of other microfilm in the gene section. Most of that microfilm is in good condition, but when I go to the courthouse archives, you can see very well the deterioration of the films there. Last week I was getting a copy of a 1931 probate and it was such a poor copy since the microfilm was nearly unreadable. I also looked up a 1913 probate and it was in pretty good shape. The state archives is digitizing all that microfilm, but starting from the newest to the oldest. I hope they get there before it gets any worse.

  6. This is a very major issue that all local historical societies should address ! The LDS does not have all the films and never will have them . When I come upon this problem in my local resources , I become a nuisance and call college archivists in my area to let them know ! It's important that researchers complain ; do not take what you want and hope the next person will solve it . That citation you made in your research may not be there for the next generation . Can you imagine ? Especially with libraries unloading all their local historical collections .

  7. You should read Nicholson Baker's Double fold if you want to really be scared. It comes down to money. Do we want to preserve this stuff? If so, who pays? As a professional librarian I am always interested in these questions.