Thursday, May 1, 2014

Preservation Week reminds us of the importance of microfilm...

April 27 through May 3 marks this year's annual observance of Preservation Week, a week long opportunity to give libraries, archives and other institutions the chance to connect our communities through events, activities, and resources that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections.

One important preservation activity of the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) is our microfilm processing program. TSLA has been producing and duplicating microfilm for over 60 years. Although much of what we film is from our own collections, we also often film county records as a part of a mutually beneficial special project to ensure preservation standards. In return, local public libraries receive copies of the microfilm, and we store copies for use by TSLA patrons, as well as maintaining the negatives in our climate-controlled vault.

Preserving Microfilm

Microfilm processing is a highly detailed, technical process. While there are workshops and seminars for microfilm training, microfilm technicians primarily learn their trade through an apprenticeship.

Keeping a set of duplicates at an off-site storage facility is one of the safest ways to ensure the survival of your records, especially in the case of theft, flood or fire. The six primary groups of records we film are:

  • Local County Permanent Records
  • County Loose Records Special Projects
  • TSLA Manuscript Collections
  • State Agency Record Groups
  • Collections on loan for microfilming
  • Newspapers

After each document organized, targeted and photographed, our microfilm technician preps the film and runs it through our microfilm processor. This process is tedious and delicate- the smallest mistake could ruin the exposure of a roll of film. TSLA is fortunate to have such highly skilled microfilm technicians.

Digital versus Film

Though there are a vast number of digital preservation mediums, microfilm is still considered the best long-term form of preservation for historic records. While digital files are useful and often more accessible to patrons, the files are subject to “bit rot” and eventual obsolescence. If kept in a proper environment, microfilm will last approximately 300 to 500 years, and even if all microfilm readers were destroyed, the information on the rolls could be accessed by simply holding the film up to a light with a magnifier. TSLA proudly maintains the stewardship of Tennessee’s treasures, and, through microfilming our collections, ensures the records will be available to our patrons for hundreds of years. TSLA has produced nearly 200,000 reels of microfilm negatives since its inception, and produces more each year.

After a roll of microfilm is processed, a quality control inspection is given, which includes a visual inspection that consists of a density and resolution check, as well as determining if there was a camera problem or operator error. In addition to methylene blue tests, this inspection ensures the film meets ANSI/AIIM standards.

Public Availability

Microfilming also allows us to sell (at cost) copies of our rolls to our patrons, which in turn allows patrons to study the film at their local archives or libraries. While not everything is available for sale due to various restrictions, many different types of records are available for purchase such as county records, newspapers, and manuscript collections. 35mm rolls are currently $25 a piece, while 16mm rolls are $20 a piece. You can browse our collections at and if you have any questions about purchasing microfilm please call 615-741-2997.

The negatives we produce are stored in our secure vault, which is kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and below 45 percent humidity to ensure the long-term survival of the film.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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