Farewell to the microfiche/microfilm reader

Microfiche reader in useOur microfilm/microfiche collections have now finally had their day.  The machine that read these formats has finally stopped printing and is being retired.  If you are one of the few people who still use these formats, or indeed remember what they are, you can still get access to a microfiche/film reader at the nearby Portsmouth History Centre.  Please phone them first to make an appointment on (023) 9268 8046.
For everyone else, here is a very short potted history of a technology.

What is (was) microfilm and microfiche?

In their day, microfilm and microfiche were wonders of technology.  They allowed huge volumes of old newspapers, journals and more to be scanned and shrunk down to a tiny size and saved onto a thin film strip (microfilm) or gel sheets (microfiche).  A special reader shone a light through the film/sheet and a lens magnified the tiny photograph of the original page up to be large enough to read on a screen above.  Later advances meant the enlarged image could even be printed.  Many pages were photographed and transferred to the film side by side and the machine allowed clients to scan through different pages.   In the decades before we had electronic resources, replacing groaning shelves loaded with teetering piles of old newspapers with a compact chest of drawers storing microfiche saved an awful lot of space and was very popular.

There were two small drawbacks.
Firstly, microfilm/microfiche required a fairly delicate piece of equipment to read them, which was so complicated you needed an expert to train you to use it, the machines were delicate and prone to breaking down, and the printouts produced were always of a poor quality.  Secondly, the original material microfiche was made from breaks down over decades of muggy, warm summers from a stable storage medium into a volatile mix of chemicals not entirely dissimilar to high explosive.  Libraries everywhere were not entirely delighted to find their archives had quietly changed into little incendiary bombs for want of refrigeration.  Don’t worry, all our microfilm was much of later manufacture and was only prone to dissolving on the quiet.
That said, preservation standard microfilms have a life expectancy of over 500 years if stored properly, without anyone actively preserving it, which is about 500 years longer than anything can be reliably be expected for any preserved digital media, which become unreadable surprisingly quickly without careful and regular migration to the latest storage system and file format.  So, perhaps as one site suggests, at least some types of microfilm might be with us for a lot longer than you might expect.

Photo by zigazou76

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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