Microfilm plays a vital role in preserving family history. As the growing desire to research one's past gains popularity, microfilm is what continues to bridge the gap between the past and present.
People have always had an interest in family history, but thanks largely to technology, genealogy has never been easier, nor more popular. In 2010, an article in The Guardian noted, “Interest in family history is undergoing an unprecedented boom, fueled by archives on the internet, websites devoted to helping would-be genealogists and the popularity of BBC1's Who Do You Think You Are?”
That was almost a decade ago, and in that span, the emergence of DNA testing services has taken genealogy to unprecedented levels. The ease of access to records and information has incited countless people to begin climbing their family trees.
Despite the advent of genetic information becoming as simple as mail order and the expansion of global archives through the internet, the humble microform has played, and will continue to play, a significant role in genealogy.
Archives captured on microfilm and microfiche have done a remarkable job of preserving history. Prior to microforms, it was up to humans to maintain paper records, photographs and other memorabilia. It’s not hard to understand the limitations of protecting these original sources. Thankfully, microfilm offered a solution to maintain these historical documents for generations. (Many, many generations when you consider properly stored microfilm has a life expectancy of 500 years.)
Prior to the internet, microfilm archives were the key to searching family histories. Important documents such as census records, immigration and military records were microfilmed by the National Archives. State and county governments began using microforms to store birth, marriage and death records. It’s safe to say that without microfilm we wouldn’t have the bridge to history so many new and amateur genealogists are crossing today.
The digital transformation is the next evolution in historical archiving. Because digital access allows people to search around the globe from the chair at their desk, placing these important documents into digital form literally opens up the world.
Fortunately, technology that converts microforms into digital records is improving to make that process easier and more efficient. Digital records provide a few advantages, including the ability to reproduce and share them easily. You don’t have to worry about the physical deterioration of documents or photographs, which can also be printed with little difficulty.
However, despite the momentum of digital preservation, microfilm will continue to perform an important function in the protection of genealogical records and sources. The National Archives and Records Administration will continue to microfilm records, claiming it is “a low-cost, reliable, long-term, standardized image storage medium. The equipment needed to view microfilm images is simple, consisting of light and magnification. The medium has a life-expectancy of hundreds of years.”
Another issue often overlooked with digitizing some historical records, primarily such as periodicals, newspapers and magazines, is legal rights of reproduction. In cases where these publications have not or had not provided rights to digital use, microfilm will continue to be the primary – and in some cases, the only – way to access them.
So, while the popular hobby of genealogy learns new tricks, like over-the-counter DNA ancestry tests, the original long-term archive solution of microfilm will continue to play a vital role in growing family trees.
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