4. Microform Handling

Chapter 4 of Managing Microforms in the Digital Age


The majority of libraries and archives still depend on separate reading equipment to make microforms usable. Microfiche and microfilm readers come in a variety of sizes with a variety of functions. Some machines are simple read-only hand-held or briefcase models. Other models include the carrel-style reader, which offers no printing or copying functions. Most research rooms now provide digital reader/printers, which offer printing, scanning to a disk or drive, and email functions. Most microfilm and microfiche readers offer some kind of image manipulation. Stand-alone reader/printers enlarge the images to make them readable, and most readers permit some type of zoom-in, zoom-out, focus, contrast-enhancement, and article-cropping features. Some readers have very large viewing screens often preferred for browsing through newspapers because the entire page can be seen in one frame. Many reader/printers have universal carriers that permit the use of 16mm, 35mm microfilm, and microfiche. Some even include features for reading opaque formats.

Microfilm Readers

Microfilm readers should be able to accommodate both 16mm and 35mm rolls of film. The magnification capability should be between 18x and 24x. Ideally, to achieve full blowback, the screen size should be as large as the original document. Newspapers and other oversized documents or maps may be exceptions to this. A minimum rotation of 90 degrees is essential to make materials recorded length-wise (like motion picture film) readable. Most libraries prefer a rotation of 180 degrees in either direction.

Microfiche Readers

Microfiche readers should be able to accept fiche up to 4 by 6 inches. A dual lens with an overall magnification range between 13x and 90x is the standard. Drop-in, slide and adjustment procedures should be simple.

Microopaque and Microcard Readers

In the 1990s, the support for microcard and microopaque formats was rapidly diminishing. Microcard and microopaque were viewed as obsolete formats as the micrographics industry was not advancing research to innovate new equipment. The market turned in the late 1990s, and improved screen scan technology was developed to permit reading and printing. While some of the opaque collections may be selected for conversion to digital for online access, libraries and archives may still choose to provide access to the opaque microforms.

Additional Considerations

Additional considerations for purchase of any microform reading machines include availability and price, printing and digital capabilities, provision of maintenance manuals, and availability of service contracts. The screens should be shatterproof and scratch resistant, nonglare and nonreflective (unless the reader will be using a computer monitor). The reader should not get hot to the touch and the cooling system should not be too noisy. The controls should be located on the front of the machine and easy to use. Loading and unloading of microforms should be easy with clearly visible operating instructions on the machine. For maintenance, light bulbs should be easy to replace, film gates and screens should be easy to clean, and fiche carriers should be removable for cleaning.

Microform Storage


Microfilm and microfiche should be stored in pH-neutral or alkaline-buffered boxes or sleeves to prevent deterioration that might occur from acidic enclosures. Alkaline-buffered button ties are best for protecting roll microfilms. Rubber bands yield gases that lead to deterioration and should be avoided. They also desiccate and break. Microfiche should be stored separately in sleeves and appropriately labeled as “1 of #,” “2 of #” and so on. This is particularly important if more than one title resides on more than one fiche in order to help ameliorate confusion during use and refiling. The adhesive on archival-quality labels are very durable and introduce no chemicals that might compromise images. Tape labels or acidic office labels are usually cheaper, but the adhesive will desiccate within ten years and the labels will eventually fall off which can lead to time-consuming replacement processes. Inert plastic reels should be used with roll microfilms. Metal reels can rust and produce chemicals that lead to deterioration. American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Association of Image and Information Management (AIIM) standards provide specific details for storage containers, reels, headers, and shelving.

Cabinets and Shelving

Microforms are best protected by storing them in closed cabinets. Stainless steel cabinets with powder coatings of finely divided, synthetic polymer materials are fused onto the steel. Powder-coated steel cabinets do not off-gas chemicals as baked enamel or wooden shelving is known to do. Microforms should be stored in an area with total protection from damaging ultraviolet radiation emitted from sunlight and fluorescent lighting. It is also recommended, for microfiche in particular, that the storage cases be of a height that permits easy browsing. A great risk with microfiche is that individual sheets will be misshelved. If the cabinets are too high, the risk is greater that staff (and sometimes patrons) will not have easy access to the correct location in the filing system.


Since public service collections are used in a public space, there cannot be any expectation that the storage environment will meet the standards for 500-LE. Storage environments for master negative and print masters require very cool and dry environmental conditions, which are not comfortable for patron facilities. That said, libraries and archives can minimize the deterioration of their service collections by maintaining as consistent environmental conditions as possible. Cycling, the constant fluctuation between high and low temperature and humidity, exacerbates the rate of deterioration. This is often the case when libraries and archives run HVAC economizer cycles. Maintaining a stable environment, even if temperature and humidity are consistently too high or too low, is the single most important strategy to preserve library collections in any format.

Each generation of master negatives and print masters should be stored in a different facility and separate from the service copies. This is the best strategy for preventing total loss in a catastrophic disaster. Storage environments should be dark, cool, and free of pests. Storage cabinets composed of powder-coated stainless steel should be used. Another option is storing boxed reels of master negative and print master in archival-quality storage boxes. Standard sizes of archival storage boxes hold twenty-four rolls of 35mm film or forty-eight rolls of 16mm film. The storage boxes should be shelved horizontally. Stainless steel warehouse shelving is acceptable since the reels are protected by button ties, individual boxes, and storage boxes.

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