What the heck is it?

Whether it’s because no one wants to deal with them, access to them is simply not needed, or there is concern about being able to back up information, we frequently receive a lot of questions about what the heck people actually have in their possession when it comes to microfilm.

In recent months, there has been a significant increase in the interest in digitizing microfilm.  While this physical media has suffered as of late from a less than favorable rap for slow response times, lagging behind technology, or simply being too old school, one thing remains clear: it is here and we are working with it.

I can literally hear the groaning through the T1 line: “Who cares?” and “What does it matter?” and “Why should I give a hoot when I can see it when I need to on my equipment?”

Answered in the order in which they were received:

Who cares?”  Anyone who has film media and has even a remote interest in converting it to a digital format.

What does it matter?”  It matters because each different type of film media may require different equipment to convert it to digital images.  And, not every vendor can handle every type of film media.

Why should I give a hoot?”  You should give a hoot if you are looking to digitize your media and have a limited budget because each type of media may have a different cost to digitize, and, if the type or quantity of film is incorrectly estimated, it could have a dramatic impact on project cost.

The groaning I typically hear is mainly because it usually seems so simple – of course everyone knows what they have – that’s what they have, that’s what they know.  The challenge is that there has been so much innovation in the microform world that even though you may have a million of the same type of film, it doesn’t mean that it is standard, typical, or simple to digitize.

Some examples of variations are…


While many microfiche are either images right on a 6”x4” piece of film (COM Fiche) or are made from 16mm film slid into channels on a plastic holder (Jacketed Fiche), they can still have very different layouts, sizes, orientations, reductions, and more.

Take the two pictures of jacketed fiche below for example.  One is a fairly standard jacketed fiche created from 16mm film, the other is created from 35mm film.  The latter can be a complicated and more expensive conversion process because some automated conversion equipment can’t capture the individual images due to the difference in size and orientation of the film.

16mm Jacketed Fiche

16mm Jacketed Fiche

35mm Jacketed Fiche

35mm Jacketed Fiche

Roll Film

The most common types of roll film are 16mm and 35mm.  The issues here are how the images are laid out and what you need from them.  These details can lead to tremendous differences.

16mm film can either be simplex or duplex.  Below, simplex is on the left, duplex on the right.  The difference?  Rolls of simplex images will typically hold 2,500 to 3,500 images. Rolls of duplex images can hold up to 10,000 or more.  Capturing each image individually could result in quadrupling your conversion cost.

16mm Film

16mm Film

16mm Film Duplex

16mm Film Duplex

35mm film often holds larger images from newspapers or books.  When imaged, many times the media was filmed “Open Face” with the book laid open and both pages captured at once as with the image below.  In this situation, if you would like each page digitized separately, you would be doubling the cost of your project.

35mm Roll Film

35mm Roll Film

Aperture Cards

This media is an old style IBM punch card that also has a “window” or “aperture” cut into the right side of the card.  In the aperture, film is inserted and the hole punches in the card provide information about the film which can be read by aperture card scanning equipment.

Aperture Card

Aperture Card

There are two issues here.  The first is that if you don’t have access to the aperture card scanner to read the hole punches, the images are being named by hand-keying the information.  The second is that some organizations got creative and placed more than one image in the aperture and the aperture card scanner may not be able to capture these multiple images.  With this, not only are you changing from an automated project to a manual one, but you are also increasing the image count and potentially the cost by 4, 5 or 6 times.

Aside from the nuances of each media type, because there has been a loss of institutional knowledge about what an organization may have, sometimes there are even challenges with knowing what to call these things.  We have worked with customers that have called aperture cards “fiche” or called jacketed fiche “microfilm.”

The bottom line is that eventually everyone will figure out what is actually in the cabinet or closet, but making assumptions or using incorrect terminology can wreak havoc on a budget planning process or project plan.

In conclusion, if any consideration is being given to imaging that old film in the closet or the aperture cards in the cabinet, take the time to inspect what you have or be prepared for your budget to be exhausted much faster than anticipated.  Or, better yet, contact your conversion services professional and invite him or her to join you for a discovery of what the heck you have.

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