The ultimate guide to microfiche and microfilm

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The ultimate guide to microfiche and microfilm

Whether you’re a closet microfiche lover or looking to find out how to convert your dusty archives, then this is for you. All the questions you’ve ever had about microfilm or microfiche are answered here. And microfiche is not stuff of legends – it’s still being used. Read on…

What is microfiche and microfilm?

They’re both types of microform.

Microfiche is just a small rectangular piece of plastic – a flat sheet of microfilm measuring circa 10 x 15 cm. Just in case you’re wondering how microfiche come by its name, fiche is French for a slip of paper or index card. The micro bit speaks for itself.

Capable of lasting 100-years and tiny in format, it stores printed information in a format that’s too small to be read by the human eye. Documents are photographed and stored on a piece of transparent film – viewed through a microfiche reader.

Microfilm comes on flat sheets of photographic film with a single sheet storing numerous images – again read by a microfiche reader.

So what’s a microfiche reader? It consists of a light and a magnifying lens which projects the image onto a screen. You can scroll through and enlarge images – printing them if the readers are attached to a printer or copier.

Microfiche or microfilm: are they the same?

Actually no but they both provide the same micro storage of information – you can use them to view images 25 times smaller than the original. And both are available as positive or negative images – though the most common format is a negative one.

The difference is in their format with microfilm being a long strip of film wound onto a reel. This is fed into a microfilm reader and you simply scroll through this to find the images you’re seeking. 

Microfiche comes on flat sheets of photographic film with a single sheet storing numerous images – again read by a microfiche reader.

So what’s the advantages of microfiche to microfilm?  It’s easy to update microfiche because you can add a new sheet at any time. It’s also an easier better way to group and organise documents. However, microfilm is cheaper. It provides a low-cost way to keep hundreds of documents on a single spool of film. 

How many images can microfilm store?

Based on the original document size and technique in filming, image counts on 16mm film can range from 2,000 to 10,000 images per roll. Image counts on 35mm film are approximately 500 images per roll.

What was microfiche and microfilm invented for?

It’s hard to think of a time when we couldn’t google for information in seconds. Before the advent of digital media, microfiche was the only practical way to preserve documents and newspapers in a format that provided easy storage.

Organisations like libraries, government bodies and large organisations have thousands of documents – storage that can quickly outstrip the biggest of buildings. Further archives, including newspapers and images, can deteriorate over time – but are of huge value for research.

The great advantage of microfiche or microfiche is that allows for the storage of thousands of documents in a small space. The small cards and reels can be filed in cabinets rather than room after room with shelves rammed full of material.

It also enables easy public access to materials, even if the originals are not available. Everything from town plans and other information, required by law to information of historic interest, can be reproduced on microfiche and kept in the public library.

Is microfiche and microfilm still used?

The answer is yes! Despite all the advances in technology, such as cloud based memory storage, the microfiche/microfilm machine still remains useful for many institutions. 

In fact a great article by Craig Saper, for The Atlantic, flags the ongoing appeal of microform with new models in production. He argues that ‘these machines continue to prove essential for preserving and accessing archival materials’ despite being viewed as outdated.

interestingly Saper also points out how microfiche changed how people read and searched for information. apparently it helped people to adjust and navigate their way round ‘nonlinear devices’ – rather than simply moving through a sequence of pages. Microform also provides some context – with surrounding articles from a paper or journal around the desired piece unlike today’s digital search which can simply direct you to the information you seek.

Should I digitalise my microfiche and microfilm?

If you’ve got thousands of microfiche and rolls of microfilm, the cost of storage and retrieval can add up over time – particularly if you have a contract in place with an external company.

By converting them to a pdf or tiff, you can immediately save the cost of storage. Further generation imaging can both scan and index the images by title bars and document fields on each image. You’re then free to upload to your computers, server or cloud.

How do I convert or scan my microfilm or microfiche?

There’s a fair few articles online that can talk you through the conversion process. 

The reality is that converting microfiche to PDF isn’t easy.  In fact, converting microfiche to PDF by using a commercial scanner, with negative scanning add-ons, simply doesn’t work. Microfiche has become something of a niche item and so it’s become increasingly hard to find anything that works well with them including readers and viewers – let alone printers.

You’re better off using a company that can do it for you. This is a much quicker and cheaper solution than attempting to find and buy the equipment you need. Whichever way you chose to go, remember that the quality of the conversion may not match your expectation as poor storage or the original process can impact this.

Can I still access or rent a microfiche reader?

The answer is yes – there are a fair few companies online. Just read the various reviews left by users.

How much does it cost to digitalise my microfiche or microfilm?

Prices vary from company to company, depending on the type of microform used and how much you are looking to digitalise.

 Before getting a quote, you should first check what type of microfiche or film you are using. Then look at the volume of the records you are looking to digitalise and approach several companies for a quote.

Has microfiche helped achieve a paperless office?

Microfilm has advanced the reduction of paper and space. However according to an independent survey of over 3,600 European employees, commissioned by Epson Europe, 86% of offices still suffer from paper overload – employees seeing the physical page as crucial. Not only is this hurting productivity but there’s high costs for the company too.

 Most people visualise a paperless office as a workplace with desks clear of paper, or a greatly reduced amount of paper. That’s certainly the aim of a paperless office.

 In fact, the term ‘paperless office’ is more commonly used to describe the methods where the use of paper can be reduced or eliminated. This involves converting from traditional paper-based processes to digital-based processes. 

 Over the last few years there has been increasing focus on the paperless office with advancements in technology and constant business drivers to reduce cost and improve efficiency.

 BPMS recommends that you look closely at your processes and systems as a starting point. There are a number of ways to reduce cost and improve efficiency but getting under the skin of how you operate and what you’re trying to achieve as a company is critical. 

The history of microform document storage: from the Prussian War to the 20th century

SRLF, part of UCLA, provides a fascinating insight to the history of microforms – and apparently it all started with microfilm. In the early 19th century, an English scientist called John Benjamin Dancer began to experiment with and manufacture micro-produced novelty texts. He further developed microphotographs as slides to be viewed with a microscope.

 Following Dancer’s techniques, a French optician, Rene Dagron, was granted the first patent for microfilm and began the first commercial microfilming enterprise – testing it (via  carrier pigeons) in the Prussian War. 

Fast forward to the 20th century

The first practical use of commercial microfilm was developed by a New York City banker to make permanent film copies of all bank records. In 1928, Eastman Kodak bought the invention.

In the late 1930’s two keys events further advanced the use of microform and this time for preserving archives. Harvard University Library began its Foreign Newspaper Project which has continued into the 21st century. And University Microfilms expanded the use of microfilms to rare books and doctoral dissertations.  

 The use of microfilm by spies is not just a fictional detail within films – it actually happened. During World War II, microphotography was used extensively for both espionage and regular military mail. 

 Greater access to information

The use of microfilm for active information systems was advocated post war, particularly within libraries.  And it wasn’t until 1961, that microfiche came into being – over 100 years after Dancer’s original invention.The information explosion within the 70s forced libraries and other institutions to adopt microforms as an alternative to bulky expensive print materials. This was further supported by advancements including improved film, readers, viewers, reader-printers, and the advent of portable lap readers.

Moving forward

Microfiche and microfilm still continue to exist – for how long is another question given digital advancements. However, microform continues to be used by libraries and other archive institutions.

Connect with BPMS if you want to know more