For generations, microform technology (such as Microfiche and Microfilm) ruled the world with an iron-fist, but like all tyrannical Empires, it fell to the Rebel scum. A Grand Canyon sized gap formed between micro and digital until digital conversion strolled along and a beautiful union, like chococolate and peanut butter, blossomed. But how microphotography maintained a stranglehold on compact document storage and long-term preservation can be summed up in two words: Cheap and Simple.
If you’re not a registered student in Professor McGonagall’s transfiguration class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the concept of converting microfilm to a digital form may escape you. Luckily, it can be taught. No expensive trip to London to catch the Hogwarts Express from platform 9 3/4 required.
Let’s start at the beginning. How are giant documents such as maps and blueprints scaled down into itty-bitty living space for images imprinted on 16mm or 35mm film?
First, a microfilm camera is required. These vary in size, from monstrous beasts 4m tall to a more manageable desk mate. Documents are laid out like cat in a sunny spot with lighting from above, and an image is captured. Often, larger models using 35mm film utilize back-lighting to emphasize light lines on large format drawings – like a Lite Brite in reverse. In many cases, the image produced proves easier to read than the faint original.
Of course, special microfilm readers or viewers are required to view microfilm by magnifying the filmed images, and they are displayed on the screen of a machine that appears similar to a computer monitor. As unbelievable as it may seem, microfilm is still in use even today.
In fact, many genealogy, real estate, and city plans are still stored on microfilm. Down in Salt Lake City, Utah, The LDS Church preserves a collection of over 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical material for public use in their Family History Library. Scrolling through a roll of 2275 images is tedious. Tiny markings called a blip can be set below an image on the film for easy navigation. Want a particular property on image 942. Easy. Punch the number in and the microfilm reader sends the film zipping along until it counts blip 942 above the exact image needed.
To convert microfilm to a digital medium, ridiculously expensive, top of the line scanners with specialized lenses are required. Currently, MCS Vancouver Microfilm Scanning Services maintains a fleet of 6 Sunrise Scanners with a seventh on order.
Microfilm is mounted on reels similar to a projector and slowly tracked under the high-end camera to be scanned and converted to a digital image on a computer. In the course of an hour, one scanner converts a roll of 2400 images with a scanning technician close by to monitor and assure the highest quality.
Once the microfilm digitization process is complete, the converted historical documents can join their newly reborn brothers and sisters in document management systems, online archives or “the cloud”.