Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday Mailbox: FamilySearch Discontinuing Microfilm?

Family History Centers (FHCs) will continue using microfilmDear Ancestry Insider,

I am reading here and there that some Family History Centers [FHCs] are getting rid of their microfilm, readers, and ceasing to support ordering it, telling patrons that it's all on the internet.

This is appallingly far from the truth. Aside from the vast microfilm and fiche holdings of the Salt Lake City FHL, which will take decades to digitize and index, there are ongoing microfilming efforts taking place because of the uncertainties about actual life of digital media.

One patron who posted recently on a Rootsweb mailing list said she was told that there is an official directive telling FHCs to do this.

Geolover *


Dear Geolover,

“There is no truth to this rumor,” said Paul Nauta, FamilySearch spokesperson, to the Ancestry Insider. “Microfilm will continue to be distributed to centers and utilized by patrons for many years to come.”

Nauta pointed out that FamilySearch does not own most of its archived records and does not have permission to digitize all the microfilm in its collection. Some parts of FamilySearch’s massive film collection will only be available on microfilm, said Nauta, and therefore only viewable in a family history center.

FamilySearch suggests that centers monitor film and computer usage, said Nauta. “Many centers have seen reduction in the use of microfilm,” he said. “They have reduced the number of readers and installed more computers.”

I can imagine that a memo on disposal policies of broken microfilm equipment might be misunderstood. I can imagine that news of centers getting rid of some microfilm readers could be misreported or misread as getting rid of all microfilm equipment.

I can also imagine that local Church leaders have needed space in Church meetinghouses for other purposes and have taken space away from some family history centers, forcing removal of some or all bulky microfilm readers, copiers, and storage cabinets.

But you are correct. We are going to continue to use microfilm for some time.

-- The Insider


Note: Letters and comments are edited for length, clarity, and editorial style.


  1. As a volunteer in a FHC, I can say the only thing going on now re microfilm is that all FHCs are doing a physical inventory of film in preparation for the film ordering process to be done online by patrons, starting in March. Thus instead of filling out the usual slips at a FHC, a patron will order a film from home paying with a credit card, saving a trip.

    The only film I can see being done away with at some juncture is the federal census microfilm once indexing catches up to 1930 or so and every FHC will have all the census images and indexes available via the limited version of Ancestry available to all FHCs.

    As an aside, I wonder why the FHL took the position that they do not have the right to digitize film which they have permission to circulate, when it seems reasonable to say that such is inherent in continuing permission to circulate film, and is only a matter of technology not foreseen when the original agreements were made. This seems at worst a close legal and ethical decision, so why not digitize and only afterward deal with objections if any.


  2. This is one rumor I hadn't yet heard. Thanks for the heads up. Once you become aware of the vast number of records on microfilm and see the relatively microscopic number digitized online, you wouldn't even think the question.

  3. "I wonder why the FHL took the position that they do not have the right to digitize film which they have permission to circulate, when it seems reasonable to say that such is inherent in continuing permission to circulate film, and is only a matter of technology not foreseen when the original agreements were made."

    Sorry, I believe this to be very far from the truth. Where the agreement says "only to be distributed to FHCs", it seems reasonable to assume that should be the case. Distributing to the entire world is in no way equivalent.

    In some cases, the films were made when the Internet was emerging so the "not foreseen" argument fails.

    Further, we know that there have been objections - images appeared on the Pilot site and were then withdrawn as in contravention of agreements.

    I applaud FamilySearch for taking care with their agreements. It may be strange for some people to realise, but not everyone applauds the LDS and if FS blunder in like Google did with in-copyright-books, they might find permission to film anything else sharply withdrawn.

  4. Bruce,

    Thanks for your reply and the information that there have in fact been objections which I was not aware of.

    And I agree that if they generate a bad impression with repositories they may not find as much cooperation in the future.

    However the one class of public records (i.e. not copyrighted books) for which I can see objections, even if not very well thought out ones, is vital records. But for most other record classes, like county deeds and such, and which were more likely to have been filmed earlier on when the net was just a dream, I cannot see how asking permission again is necessary.

    Obviously also I am not talking of records where the FHL has made explicit agreements to limit distribution as is occasionally found.

    But you mention that the FHL agreed not to distribute some records outside of FHCs. So then if such records are digitized, and then accessed *only* via FHC computers (and possibly only indexed that way as well), then would you think it still necessary to gain permission for same?

    Finally as an aside, I would like to bring up an issue that the genealogical community needs to address, which is recalcitrant public repositories. I mean those that refuse either the FHL or commercial providers permission to digitize/film non-contentious record classes like deeds, wills, etc. For genealogists to influence such situations as citizens on a local level, we need to know who they are. And if the FHL and Acom are afraid of naming such institutions for fear of losing what few crumbs they get from them, then perhaps state societies need to take a more proactive role in questioning state repositories of public records as to whether they are cooperating with efforts commercial or not, to make such records more widely available via digitization. Thus far mainly what I have seen have been defensive measures to fight proposed legislation limiting access to vital records.

  5. A good example of images which were withdrawn were those of the Cheshire parish registers. I asked Familysearch why they had been withdrawn and "contractual" reasons were quoted. Frankly I think that not allowing images of records like that to be posted online is ridiculous, but thanks for copyright being extended for far, far too long many of them will not be available for many years.


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