Sunday, August 7, 2011

"HEY! You should digitize that!"

I've been studying archival methodology for about a year now as part of my graduate studies at the University of Buffalo. Prior to that, I was well aware of the pros and cons of microfilm an digital imaging, but my coursework really put things into perspective. Interestingly enough, I had not noticed the extreme amount of misinformation people had regarding the long-term preservation of historic documents through microfilm and or digital imaging. Now, it seems like I encounter someone every week who will say to me, "Jeez, you should get that digitized," or "That book looks like it is falling apart, you should scan it into the computer before it falls apart." I am quite sure that their intentions are good, however there is either a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the process of digital imaging and electronic storage or there is a mix up of phrasing and wording when it comes to the term "digitizing."

Microfilming has been around since the early 1800s and started to become popular in the 1920s when the Library of Congress microfilmed millions of pages from the British Library. Since that point in time, it developed into the staple for long-term document preservation as well as a method for space-saving. However, the term microfilm has become synonymous with "Old Crotchety Librarian," "Pain In The Ass," "Waste of Time," and "Out of Date." Articles submitted to Library-based academic journals as early as the 1970s note that even though microfilming is the most cost efficient and safest way to store documents for the long-term, library users still view it as a time consuming, archaic piece of crap. In a strange spin, studies show that the libraries themselves and the librarians employed at those institutions are the main driving force behind the failure of microfilm. Whether the librarian shows reluctance in aiding the user in the use of a microfilm machine, refuses to retrieve certain reels of film or just places the reader in a remote corner where it cannot be seen by the public, these actions create a distaste for the use of such equipment and means.

This shifts us to the argument in favor of digitization. The biggest pro in support of digitization is the extremely detailed and beautiful reproduction quality that digital imaging can create. For example, in my research as a genealogist, I have encountered documents that are too frail to copy on a machine or microfilm readers with no printers. A photograph with a 12.1 Megapixel camera taken without a stabilizer (digitizing equipment utilizes two high quality cameras, stabilizers and lighting) I was able to produce an image that could then be zoomed in from the comforts of my own home. It was like I had the original right in front of me with a magnifying glass. Digital Imaging also provides the document's copy in a colored image, where microfilm can only reproduce the document in black and white or a negative image. In the last of the prevalent pros, where microfilm still retains the physical space of a reader AND film rolls, digital images retain the physical space of the computer and potentially a remote server for the storage.

There ends the pros of digital imaging. It has the potential to create high quality colored reproductions of the original document, however the actual storage of the file creates a potentially dangerous situation. We've all encountered the age-old virus on our computers. Those crazy ones that manage to infect the entire system before we realize what is really going on and wipes all our files. If such thing were to happen to an electronic archives, the result could be devastating. Even the backing up of such files to a remote server could encounter the same situation. Since solid-state harddrives are only beginning to become popular, hardware malfunctions could completely wipe out files. As many computer users know, software and hardware experience never ending updates. These updates can create compatibility issues, resulting in the need to migrate and change file types and programs which warps and alters the original digital imaging resulting in loss of file size, etc.

This is where microfilm thrives. A microfilm reel can be read on any film reader and all the film readers read the same type of film, leading to the lack of need to upgrade the film style to a new type. The typical environmental effects on the physical reels has been essentially negated due to a standardized use of Silver-Halide and Vesicular films. When filming became popular in the United States, nitrate films were typically used but proved dangerous due to the flamability and explosive nature of the material. Original films are stored on Silver-Halide reels which have a shelf life of over 500 years. Silver-Halide film rolls are the type stored at the National Archives and the LDS Archives in Salt Lake City. The typical roll of film used by a library user are Vesicular. These are cheaper to reproduce and hold up to every-day handling and use. Institutions will use the Silver-Halide films to make a copy onto Vesicular film which is then sent to libraries and research centers for use by library patrons. The final form, Diazo, is no longer suggested for use as the creation process utilized light to burn the images into the film. That type of film was prone to deterioration due to every-day light exposure because of the process used to create it.

Although both microfilming and digitization are not cheap, microfilm provides the biggest bang for your buck. It requires no migration or constant updating and has a guaranteed shelf life if properly stored. Digitization produces better images, but costs more in the long run to update and protect. The overall goal of either process is to make records more accessible to users. Of course, the Internet allows digital imaging to provide the greatest amount of access to users by placing the images on servers for remote access. However, if the goal of digitization is to simply preserve the information in a remote location in case the original image is damaged, that process is a waste of money. The Mormon Church has been working diligently on making their microfilm records available digitally on the internet. Such a venture is a worthy one because it would allow all of their records to be viewed remotely from any computer.

So...digitization may sound like a good and fancy way to store your precious documents, but step back and take a long look. Microfilming is typically the best mode for long-term storage of documents!