Microfilm Digitization in Today's World

Looking at starting the digitization project? Here's what you need to consider before starting the process:

Our digital world has conditioned us to expect needed information to be accessible almost instantly. Even people who grew up in a pre-internet world have come to demand this. Most information today is available in a form that meets this instant accessibility expectation. However, there are many trillions of documents that are only available on microfilm and even when using modern microfilm scanners, accessing these documents is less than instant. For this reason, and others, there is an almost universal desire to digitize microfilm collections.

There are many questions to be addressed before a decision can be made to move forward with digitization.

  • Copyright: Before microfilmed documents can be digitized, permission to copy must be obtained or it must be confirmed that the documents are in the public domain. For more information on copyright laws, please visit http://e-imagedata.info/copyright.
  • Security: If the microfilm to be digitized contains sensitive information and cannot be moved off site, digitization will need to be done on site.
  • Accessibility: If the microfilmed documents to be digitized must be available during the digitization process, it may be logistically impractical to move the film off site.
  • Indexing: An index is the means by which finding a document is possible. Creating an index can be a major expense for any digitization project. The greater the granularity of the index the more quickly a document can be found, but the more expensive it is to create.
  • File Format: File format is how the digitized image is stored on the computer. Formats such as PDF or TIFF can be integrated with any document management system, whereas proprietary file formats cannot. Furthermore, proprietary file formats will require a proprietary viewer. Choosing a proprietary file format creates an unhealthy and perpetual dependency on the company providing them. (Note: please also put in call-out box)
  • Bit Depth: Typical values are 8-bit (256 shades of gray) or 1-bit (2 shades of gray which is black and white). 1-bit files require substantially less storage space than 8-bit files. However, if the document image on film is of poor quality, which is frequently the case, to capture all image detail, it may be necessary to use 8-bit grayscale.
  • Dot Per Inch (DPI): DPI affects both image clarity and file size. A typical value is 300 dpi. Higher DPI may improve image clarity but will increase required storage space.
  • Quality Assurance: Documents on microfilm are often of poor quality. Just because they have been digitized doesn’t mean that the digitized version is readable. Destroying the original microfilm after digitization is strongly discouraged (Baylor University Digitization Project Group post at http://e-imagedata.info/Baylor), but if that is the intent, then it will be necessary to inspect 100% of the digitized images prior to the film’s destruction. It is common for a film collection to contain many millions of document images, but if the digital copy of just 1 million documents were inspected, spending just 1 second on each would take a minimum of 277 manhours to complete. Nonetheless, 100% inspection is not 100% accurate. 100% inspection will be a major expense of the digitization process and in many cases, it is impractical. For this reason, it is suggested that the film always be retained, thereby making the inspection step unnecessary. If while using the digitized images, it is discovered that the quality of an image is unacceptable the film can then be used to re-digitize and replace the unacceptable image.
  • Hardware: Hardware will be needed to accomplish three tasks. The first is to do the actual digitization. The second is to store, serve, and backup the files. The third is to accomplish re-scans when a digitized image is found to be unacceptable.
  • Software: Depending on the file format chosen, it may be necessary to purchase a proprietary viewer for each computer needing access to the digitized images. This software frequently includes recurring software charges. Therefore, proprietary file formats are not recommended.
  • Cost: The cost of digitizing microfilm is influenced by many factors such as how many images are to be digitized, do the images need to be 100% inspected, what level of granularity is needed for indexing, hardware costs, storage/server costs, recurring software charges, recurring storage/server charges, etc.

If this seems overwhelming take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. At this point in the evolution of microfilm digitization technology, the best digitization path is frequently not clear. In fact, for many institutions, practically speaking, a path does not exist. e-ImageData is dedicated and focused on changing that – making the pathway to digitization clearer and within reach for everyone.

As industry leaders in micrographics for the past 3 decades, we are continually improving the way people work with microfilm worldwide by providing the latest technologies available. We are excited to be on the brink of yet another extraordinary technology that will make digitizing microfilm easier, more accurate, more accessible, and more affordable than ever before.

Written by engineering expert, Todd Kahle, Vice President of e-ImageData Corp.

This article was featured in Inside NIRMA Summer 2019.

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