For the sake of convenience and document integrity, many companies are transferring paper records to a digital format. These companies are finding numerous options for the conversion. Documents are safer for longer when scanned to digital storage. What’s interesting is that many companies are also choosing to transfer digital images back to microfilm.

Microfilm is one of the more traditional forms of document storage, along with microfiche, aperture cards, and paper. These are the mediums that were digitized as TIFF images or PDFs. Digital documents, specs, drawings, records, and the like are easy to retrieve and very secure. So why the trend to go back to microfilm?

There seems to be a perception that microfilm has more longevity than digital storage, especially over several decades. After all, high quality microfilm stored under good conditions can last over 100 years. This technology has proven to work. Some people don’t find digital storage as trustworthy. How valid is this opinion?

To answer this, let’s look at some common methods of digital storage:

  • High quality read/write CDs and DVDs – these can perhaps last 100 years.
  • Magnetic tape – this should last 30-40 years, possibly longer
  • Flash drives – theoretically, these can last a significant amount of time, but by the nature of their use, they are not comparable to the other methods.

Of course, two qualities about digital storage need to be factored in: 1) some of it hasn’t been around long enough to prove its longevity, and 2) it is always evolving. Systems require regular migration of data from one backup system to another to keep data stored in the most current format. This can solve the longevity problem, but only if using an active storage management over a long period of time.

We need to consider the possibility of microfilm being corrupted, too. The conditions in which the microfilm is kept and handled will affect the life of the medium. Human error makes it quite possible that microfilm wouldn’t last more than 50 years without being lost or damaged.

That being said, microfilm is an incredibly stable technology. Little has changed with it over time because it hasn’t needed to. Not only is the format consistent – which digital is not – but also the technology to read/scan microfilm should always be around.

Overall, microfilm does win out as a more reliable storage system for extremely long periods of time. However, digital technology is sure to catch up with the reliability of microfilm. In the end, storage and management of the mediums will be the greater risk to longevity, not the chosen medium.

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