Guide: How to Handle, Store, and Care for Microfilm/Microfiche

Microfilm Reel

Microfilm was once considered to be the gold standard of information storage.

At the peak of its popularity, no other storage medium came close to the convenience, affordability, and durability that microfilm was able to provide. 

For this reason, it has been widely adopted by government agencies, libraries, historical archives, and other institutions that require reliable long-term data storage.

Fast forward more than 180 years after its inception, and while its use is certainly not as prevalent as it once was, microfilm and microfiche are still used and produced to this day. 

While most organizations have already made the switch to digital storage, there are still some cases where physical records must be stored and retained for regulatory reasons. 

Most records managers will tell you that microfilm is still a viable storage option, especially in situations where records must be archived for a decade or more. In fact, many historical collections can only be found on microforms.

That’s because modern polyester based microfilm is extremely resilient, believed to last for up to 500 years.

Of course, the way in which microfilm is handled, cared for, and stored over the course of its lifetime is an important component of its longevity. 

If you find yourself in possession of important microfilm data you want to preserve, it’s critical that you store your film correctly.

Our guide will tell you everything you need to know about caring for your microform library. 

How to properly handle your microforms.

Film is delicate, and should be handled with care to prevent fingerprints, scratches, or creases in the media.

However, common sense is pretty much all that is needed to ensure you are not causing any unnecessary damage during regular use.

It’s important that your hands are clean and dry before you handle any kind of film. Acidic skin oils, sweat, and anything else on your hands can be transferred onto the film which over time, can lead to deterioration. 

Touching the back of the film, which happens often when loading reels for example, should not be an issue. However, touching the emulsion should be avoided when possible, so in general, handle film by the edges or leaders.

Assuming your hands are clean and dry, even an occasional touch is nothing to panic about.

Some people prefer to wear gloves when handling microfilm. If your hands sweat a lot or you are especially cautious, vinyl gloves work well. Latex gloves can certainly help prevent fingerprints, but they tend to stick to film and can make it more difficult to handle.

If you are scanning microfiche or printing, cotton gloves can produce lint that can show up on the final product, otherwise, they too are a good option.. At the end of the day, wearing gloves is completely optional. 

How to properly store microfilm

Storage conditions are by far the most important aspect of preserving microfilm, since the majority of the life of your film is probably going to be spent stored. 

Needless to day, don’t expect your microfilm to last very long if it’s been haphazardly tossed into a cardboard box and stuffed in the attic. Film is perishable, and it will “spoil” under the right conditions. 

However, If you are able to take the proper precautions, microfilm images can retain their integrity for a long time.

  1. Microfilm should be stored in a temperature controlled environment, ideally cooler than 70 degrees. Excessive heat tends to mute the image over time, decreasing contrast and lowering the overall quality of the image. 
  2. Microfilm that has been stored at a low temperature should be allowed time to gradually come up to room temperature before use to avoid water condensation from forming on the film. 
  3. In addition to a temperature control, microfilm should be stored in a relatively dry environment, ideally below 50% humidity. The metallic silver in film emulsions is susceptible to oxidation, causing faded patches or tarnished red spots in your film.Too much moisture can also lead to the formation of mold, which can damage the emulsion layer.
  4. Microfilm that is likely to be handled/accessed frequently should be duplicated, storing the original safely while working with the copy. 
  5. Excessive light exposure can cause film to fade out of existence over time, so it’s also important that you store your records in a dark place with absolutely no direct sunlight.
  6. Monitor acidity levels closely. A-D strips are dye coated strips commonly used to detect and measure acetate film deterioration (“vinegar syndrome”), and can be stored along with your microfilm as a “canary in the coal mine” so to speak. These strips provide a way to measure and document the extent of vinegar syndrome early enough to allow time to backup your data. 
  7. Store your slides upright whenever possible, stacking film can cause it to warp or curl. Microfilm should be packed snugly, but never so tightly that it becomes compressed.
  8. Rolls of film should be stored individually in boxes to prevent chemical interactions with other deteriorating rolls. Film exhibiting signs of vinegar syndrome can spread acid fumes which can damage adjacent film.
  9. Microfilm reels should be stored fully wound. Do not pull the film to tightly round the reel as this could damage the film.
  10. Never use rubber bands to group microfilm cards, as they contain sulfur, which can damage film emulsion. 
  11. It’s best to store your film in metal cabinets or plastic containers, as paper can contain acidity that can damage your film.
  12. Film reels or microfiche cards should be removed from their enclosures one at a time, and returned to storage immediately after use. This is to minimize the accumulation of dust or particles that could cause abrasions to your film.

Disaster Prevention

While it is true that microfilm can last for centuries under perfect conditions, it is also susceptible to water damage, fire, or other natural disasters that could result in the permanent loss of irreplaceable information. 

That’s why it is always important to be proactive about backing up your most valuable microfilm data.

There are still a number of microform duplication services that can be used to create physical copies of your microfilm collection. In these cases, a print master reel is created from which copies can then be made. For historical archives or in situations where a physical copy must be kept, this is a great option.

You can also hire a professional scanning company to scan and digitize microfilm and microfiche, transforming your collection of film images into a text-searchable archive of high resolution digital image files. 

Digitizing microforms is an affordable way to improve the accessibility of your information and enhance data security. It also provides you with the ability to store multiple redundant backup copies to fall back on in the unfortunate event of lost or damaged film. 

Digitizing is not necessarily a replacement for physical storage, as many owners of microform libraries choose to make electronic copies for other purposes. Digital copies can be used and accessed while original masters are safe in storage, reducing wear and tear on your film. And frequently accessed images can be made more readily available by digitizing them

However, it is important to note that if your film has already shown signs of damage, it may be too late. After all, the quality of the resulting scans are ultimately limited to the quality of images on hand. This is why it’s recommended you digitize your microfiche preemptively, before any deterioration is detected. 

Contact us today for more information about our microfiche scanning service.

How do I know if my microfilm is deteriorating?

The natural lifespan of microfilm varies depending on the type of stock used during the production of the film. 

Today, polyester base microfilm is used almost exclusively. That’s because it is extremely durable and chemically stable, unlike acetate. It is resistant to tears and fares better than other types of film in less than ideal storage conditions.  Most film produced after the mid-80s use a polyester base. 

If you have film from the 1950s-1980s, chances are you have acetate film. Acetate on its own has a life expectancy of 100 years if stored correctly. However, it’s far more susceptible to damage from fluctuating temperature and humidity than polyester. 

When acetate film is exposed to too much moisture, the film starts to break down and shed acetic acid which produces a vinegar-like aroma, aptly named “vinegar syndrome”. If this smell is at all detectable, rapid deterioration is already underway. 

Vinegar syndrome causes the acetate base to shrink and curl, distorting the emulsion layer.  Film in this state may already be unusable. 

For this reason, AD strips (as described earlier) should be stored alongside your film as an early detection tool for acidity levels. 

Once you have detected vinegar syndrome, you can slow the deterioration process down by storing your film in cold storage. However, for obvious reasons, this is not always practical. 

This condition is also contagious. Film suffering from vinegar syndrome should be separated from healthy film to avoid vinegar syndrome from spreading. In fact, its best to isolate your acetate film from other material in general.

Another sign of acetate film deterioration is embrittlement. Over time, film can become too fragile to be reproduced. Once film has reached this phase, there is not much you can do to recover your data. 

If you have your hands on pre-50’s film, your film is probably a cellulose nitrate base. Cellulose nitrate was the first film stock used, and was replaced for a reason; it is extremely combustible and was prone to rapid deterioration. 

If you have cellulose nitrate film still in storage, it would be a good idea to digitize your film before it’s too late. 

Conclusion

When properly cared for, your microfiche images can last a very long time. But if you are looking to free up storage space, improve accessibility, or simply create a digital backup of your microfilm, we can help. 
We combine state-of-the-art microfilm scanning equipment with more than 19 years of experience to provide secure, high quality microfilm scanning service at an affordable price. We can help you digitize microfilm in any format, including 16mm, 35mm and 105mm, converting your film to a variety of popular image formats to suit your needs.

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