European Commission on Preservation and Access, Amsterdam
October 1997

1. Should endangered books and archives be filmed or digitized?

The reformatting of damaged or endangered books and archives is an effective and economic conservation measure. Moreover, in contrast to measures to preserve or restore originals, the transfer of information to age-resistant media can also serve the objective of wider and better access.

Image conversion of endangered archive or library material to other media, for protection or for the permanent replacement of the original medium threatened by deterioration, requires systems that produce, over very long periods of time and economically, the highest possible reproduction quality, availability, and access. Compared with other modern information media, microfilm has the advantage that the material undergoes no fundamental technical transformation and is thus “future-proofed.” The analog-stored information is directly accessible, with relatively little effort, to the human eye. Increasing national and international compatibility of microfilming systems ensures acceptance across national borders. Microforms can be economically created, duplicated, and distributed. Microfilm systems can be combined with electronic data processing (edp) access systems. But microfilm can also be efficiently digitized with microfilm scanners. This will become more economical as the reproduction quality and financial viability of digital access systems improve.

Microfilm is an analog and age-resistant storage medium whose accessibility can be maintained with relatively few resources over long periods of time. Moreover, it remains available at all times for further processing in digital systems. Thus, it has a place in the digital media world. As a high-quality, intermediate storage medium, microfilm offers new and attractive methods and levels of access to books and archive material, with the help of digital access systems.

For the reasons given, it is advisable to film endangered material before digitizing, rather than microfilming from the digital medium. There is a financial rationale for this even when the only concern is digitization of material for new levels of access and use. Because microfilm is a long-term storage medium, it can minimize heavy expenditures for data migration and the frequent technical and organizational measures needed to preserve readability in new systems environments of material available only in digital form. Over the long-term, this justifies the resources invested in the preparation and handling of microfilm.

When an original is to be digitized directly, it is important to remember that the advantages of digital storage and processing must not be gained at the cost of reproduction quality, low durability, or lack of compatibility or “future proofing” of the information medium or of the hardware. A program specifying the technical and organizational steps involved in periodic migration, which can be constantly refined, should be part of the system design. Here, too, microfilm as a medium has a part to play. In principle, it is possible to transfer digital image data to microfilm. However, contrary to statements that sometimes appear in the professional literature, converting digitized data to microfilm, which can then be used as an analog long-term storage medium, involves a notable reduction in quality. Microfilm produced in this way cannot now be used for digitization with any guarantee of an acceptable result. Analog and digital storage forms are thus not yet fully compatible.