Our partner in Singapore explains what it’s like to be one of the few companies still creating new physical microfilm.
By Brad Kvederis,
A widely held opinion about microfilm is that it’s a “dead-end” technology. Lots of it was created in the past, and there’s still a market for equipment to read or digitize what already exists, as our ST Imaging and nextScan divisions are well aware. But no one’s making new microfilm anymore, and they haven’t been for decades. Once we’ve dealt with what’s left, it’ll be nothing more than a curiosity for collectors and retro enthusiasts.
If you think that, you’d be wrong, says Kelvin Ong, Head of Business Development of Micrographics Data Pte Ltd. in Singapore. Micrographics Data has been selling ST Imaging’s ViewScan readers throughout Southeast Asia for almost 10 years, and more recently came aboard as resellers of our nextScan product line. But that’s not where Micrographics Data’s business stops. They’re one of the few companies making microfilm – yes, brand-new microfilm, in 2023 – and according to Kelvin, business is booming.
Of course, that naturally raises the question: Who in the world is still using new microfilm these days? And why would they want to do it?
Digital Copies: Not as Permanent as You Think
In a revealing demonstration that things are not always as we perceive them, Kelvin holds up three old computer floppy disks, ranging in size from the truly ancient 8-inch format to the slightly less ancient 3.5-inch kind. “Your data is on here. It’s digital. Digital is forever, right? Do you have any way to access it?”
Aha! I actually DO still have a computer with a floppy drive, I think triumphantly. It’s just out in the garage, and I don’t know if it still works because it hasn’t been plugged in for years. I quickly realized that’s exactly his point.
“What about this?” he says, holding up a microfilm reel next to the rest. “This reel is 50 years old. Which one out of these could you still retrieve?”
It’s a real mic-drop moment, and Kelvin knows it. After all, he’s had the same conversation hundreds of times before with prospective clients, and this is always the part that hits home. The realization that your data isn’t future proof, even after it’s crossed the digital divide, can be quite a startling one.
At nextScan, we’ve worked with many microfilm conversion clients (as has Micrographics Data) who’ve breathed a metaphorical sigh of relief once their last reels of film are . But in reality, the battle to preserve that data isn’t over.
A digital copy of something, when it really comes down to it, is actually still a physical copy. It’s just on different media that requires a computer to access. Its existence still depends on the usability of a physical storage device. In other words, your data is ok either until the end of the device’s lifespan, or until it becomes hopelessly outdated. In many instances, those are about the same thing.
So, if we’re being precise, there are actually two battles being fought in the digital preservation of data: One against the condition of the storage media, and the other against its compatibility with current technology.
Sparing you the full progression through hard drive interface standards, and of ill-fated offshoots like laser discs and Zip drives – in the computing world, you tend to get about five years in which you can be absolutely sure everything will work, 10 years in which it will work with some effort, and 15 or 20 years until it’s an artifact. Today’s LE-500 microfilm, if produced and converted according to ISO standards, has a life expectancy of five hundred years or more (hence the abbreviation in its name).
All this is not to say that digital storage is inherently unstable or dangerous for your data – it just takes work to maintain. One of digital data’s great advantages is that it’s quickly and easily copied, as long as you’re willing to invest the effort to do it. And of course, when it comes to accessing and using that data, there’s no match for the speed of digital.
Longevity and … Cybersecurity?
The big misconception, according to Kelvin, is that the speed of digital means microfilm has no role anymore in the data ecosystem. In fact, it still has an important role – just a different one than it used to be.
“People love to say that electronic copies have replaced microfilm, in the same way they’d say DVDs and streaming replaced VHS tapes. But the mistake they’re making is thinking about it as the primary storage that you use for day-to-day access.”
“Digital has absolutely replaced it there. No one would ever use film for things like customer records or patient files that they need to look up every day. But for a long-term offline backup – sometimes generational storage – there’s nothing in the digital realm that compares.”
But besides its longevity, there’s one other reason – perhaps a surprising one – that film has found a niche in data preservation: Cybersecurity.
“You can’t hack film,” Kelvin says. “In the age of digital attacks and ransomware, you do have certain customers who find legitimate value in keeping physical copies of their important information as insurance. Again, these are not primary copies for constant access; they’re backup copies for one-time conversion.”
What’s Being Made into Microfilm
Typical microfilm customers today include many of the same types you’d always find: Government agencies, museums and historical preservationists; sometimes companies with particular types of information. What’s changed a lot is the kind of information that’s worth putting on film.
When microfilm was the default daily-access storage system for everything, the information you might record on it included … well, everything. Most of us were familiar with it as a repository old magazine and newspaper articles in public libraries, but you might have also found microfilm copies of routine financial transactions, contracts, permits, payroll records, or just about any other kind of office document you can think of. That’s not the case anymore.
What’s copied to microfilm today tends to be items of generational significance – gone are the mundane transactional types of documents. Likely candidates might include things like patent illustrations, architectural drawings, floor plans and survey maps, even works of art. Government institutions are naturally among the biggest customers, which often leads to some interesting situations.
“We’ve done some very highly secure projects – making film for defense contractors, nuclear plants, things of that nature,” Kelvin recalls. “For one contract, we had to install a microfilm writer on-site at the Department of Defense, and our employees got a military escort to and from the project site each day. Most of the time, the agencies will buy the equipment and have us train them on it, then do the project in-house.”
(Digital Check’s nextScan division has encountered similar situations in our more sensitive projects; for instance, when delivering specialized wide-format aerial film scanners to the Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.)
Kelvin estimates that even in those types of agencies and government departments that represent the likely places for film-worthy information, only about 10 to 15 percent of the data actually ends up as microfilm. And that’s a reasonable number, he thinks.
“We don’t convert everything, just what needs to last generations,” he says. “What that means is ultimately up to the owner. We’ve found the best approach is to show them the whole array of options and let them decide.”
The Microfilm Ecosystem Then and Now: A Full About-Face, and the Need for Another New Technology
The irony is not lost on Kelvin that a significant part of Micrographics Data’s microfilm today is created from digital originals – precisely the opposite goal of most data-preservation projects. In fact, since he’s also involved in the other side of the business, scanning microfilm to digital format, it’s not unusual for customers to pay him for digitizing the same film that his company made for them decades ago.
When his family started Micrographics Data in 1989s, it was exclusively a microfilming service bureau – a company that didn’t sell equipment but captured customers’ paper archives to 16mm or 35mm film on a project-by-project basis. Eventually, that market began shrinking as paper was scanned straight to digital. But then came an unforeseen twist: There were still customers who needed information put onto film, but now there were no original documents.
“When I joined the company around 10 years ago, and even for a while before that, new paper documents were becoming rarer and rarer,” Kelvin says. “Everything that’s created nowadays goes straight to PDF; that’s its original format. Up until that point, microfilming machines were all for putting paper documents on film or copying film from other film. There was nothing for making microfilm straight from a digital file, so that had to be invented from scratch.
“There were only a couple companies in the entire world that were making these digital archive writers, and we were buying them all the way from Europe. I noticed we were buying a lot of equipment, and that’s when we decided to start manufacturing our own, which is now the latest model MD AW3.and also the digital microfilm processor MD PRO3.
Despite the changes that recent years have brought about, Kelvin doesn’t think microfilm is a dying technology, just an evolving one. After all, digital technology has had the chance to run its full course here, and microfilm has found its role, albeit a different one than in the past.
“We don’t try to fight the market,” Kelvin says. “If you don’t have a use for film, you don’t have one, and we’re not going to change that. But here we are in 2023, and we’re producing more film, and we’re making it from digital originals. I think that makes it safe to say microfilm has a place.”