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Microfilm is the most frequently encountered kind of microform (a reproduction of a physical record in miniature on film). It is created using specialized cameras to capture high-quality, but small, images of records (e.g., oversized volumes like deed books, and standard size records like student files, vital records, etc.) onto a roll of film (typically 16 mm width for standard size or 35mm width for oversized records; note that 35 mm is also the film size utilized for the reformatting of archival records). Microfilm should not be confused with microfiche, another type of microform, as the latter is produced on a sheet rather than on a roll of film.

Image.  Pile of paper and scanner

Advantages to Microfilming Records

Invented in the 19th century, microfilm is still a standard and stable records management tool in the 21st. Properly produced and stored microfilm is estimated to have a shelf life of approximately five hundred years and will remain accessible with hand-held magnification tools if more sophisticated retrieval tools are lacking. In addition to longevity and simplicity, microfilm does not require software updates or migration to other formats to continue to be accessible. Microfilming is one tool available to records management programs who want to reformat their records, and imaging is also an option. 

Deciding to Microfilm Records

In general, a records management program should consider microfilming its records when one or more of the following conditions are met: 

Factors Based on your Records Management Program

  • insufficient amount of storage space for paper/physical records  
  • preparation and scanning records vs. allocating time to other required tasks 
  • monetary costs (supplies, labor, etc.) 
  • necessary scanning equipment available on-site
  • already existing well-established microfilming program

Factors Based on the Records

  • condition of the records 
  • volume of the records 
  • records are determined to be archival 
  • records must be retained for extended periods of time 
  • preparatory work (removal of staples and fasteners) 

Working with a Vendor

For most records management programs, microfilming will be outsourced to a vendor. The reason for this is simple: a significant majority of records management programs lack the equipment, infrastructure, and technical knowledge necessary to produce microfilm. For those programs that do have their own inhouse microfilming capability, a thorough analysis of the records to be prepared and microfilmed is necessary.

Preservation Masters and Access Copies 

When records are microfilmed, multiple copies of the microfilm are produced, and the number and type depend upon the resources and needs of the records management program. At a minimum, a “master” (or “preservation”) copy is produced, usually using silver halide film, as is an “access” copy, often using diazo film. The access copy can be utilized by staff and/or customers, and the master/preservation copy should be stored separately and offsite as per the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education (8 NYCRR, parts 185.7  and 188.18 for local governments and state agencies, respectively). Sometimes additional copies are produced from which new access copies can be made if they are needed or the original access copy becomes worn out from use. If, however, microfilm is not utilized for access purposes, only two copies would be needed, one stored onsite and one offsite. 

Destroying Original Paper Records After Microfilming

According to part 185.7 for local governments, and 188.18 for state agencies, of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education (8 NYCRR), you may replace a paper record with a microform image, that is you may destroy the paper copy once it has been filmed. However, you are responsible for maintaining the record in its new format for its full retention period. If destroying the original, you must: 

  • follow the steps laid out in 8 NYCRR 185.8 or 188.18 
  • verify 100% of all images produced by comparing them to the original record 
  • Ensure that the master/preservation silver copy of the microfilm is stored offsite in appropriate environmental conditions so that additional copies can be made if needed 

Archival Records Produced by Local Government and State Agencies 

Local governments and state agencies should not dispose of any record that has intrinsic archival value because of its age or because it was produced in a format no longer used such as minutes kept in cursive handwriting. For oversized documents, such as maps or plans, where the scale, or reduction ratio, needs to be different than standard-sized documents, contact the State Archives for more information. 


You can find more information about Microfilming in the following publications: