We all knew this day was coming.
The Legal Genealogist and everyone else who has been watching the slow but steady demise of the microfilm business over the past several years could see the handwriting on the wall.
FamilySearch and the Family History Library have been moving over from microfilm to digital for years now. Cameras out in the field copying records today are all digital, more and more of the microfilmed record sets are being digitized — and it’s been more and more trouble to keep microfilm readers working and even to find raw microfilm to make new copies of microfilmed records.
So it’s really no surprise that the end of microfilm as a medium for records access was coming.
And now we have an end date: August 31 of this year will be the last day on which we as genealogists can order microfilm from FamilySearch.
The announcement came earlier this week:
FamilySearch, a world genealogy leader and nonprofit, announced today its plans to discontinue its 80-year-old microfilm distribution service. The transition is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology. The last day for ordering microfilm will be August 31, 2017. Online access to digital images of the world’s historic records allows FamilySearch to service more people around the globe, faster and more efficiently. …
FamilySearch has now digitally reproduced the bulk of its microfilm collection—over 1.5 billion images so far—including the most requested collections based on microfilm loan records worldwide. The remaining microfilms should be digitized by the end of 2020, and all new records from its ongoing global efforts are already using digital camera equipment.1
This will be an inconvenience.
And, occasionally, a major inconvenience.
And, occasionally, a major convenience.
And one that we’re all going to have to adjust to, so let’s get to it.
Here’s the bottom line:
By the end of 2020, many of the records now available on microfilm will be available digitally.
Many of those digitized records will be available easily, to anyone with a computer; some we’ll have to access only at a specific location.
Some won’t be available in the interim until the transition process is complete.
And some won’t be available at all, period.
Let’s look at these.
1. CONVENIENT: More and more records will be digitized and put online without any restrictions. That means many basic genealogical records will be available from the internet, from any computer, at home, at 3 a.m., in our bunny slippers.
This, of course, is the good part. As time goes on, more and more of the records we all need and want to access will be available free to anyone who has a computer and web access. Whenever and wherever the contractual arrangements with the original provider allow, the records will simply be there, for all of us to use whenever and wherever we wish.
Take a look at the record sets now available just for the United States with digital images: there are, as of today, 821 record sets ranging from Alabama Civil War service records (available in partnership with Fold3.com) to obituaries from the Star Valley (Wyoming) Independent.
And it’s not just those in the Historical Records sets either. If you go through the FamilySearch catalog for any location, and choose the option for records online, you’ll see that there are many more record sets that have been digitized already — and more coming online every day.
Considering that this is free to most of us,2 this is a truly wonderful thing. And a major convenience for us all.
2. MINOR INCONVENIENCE: Most records digitized but available only with restrictions should be accessible at the FHL and Family History Centers.
A fair number of record sets now available digitally come with contractual restrictions: FamilySearch isn’t being allowed to put them online for everyone to access at any time. To access most of those, we’re going to have to be at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City or at a Family History Center (FHC).
This is really only a minor inconvenience, since that’s the same way we access much of the microfilm today: if the record isn’t available online, we either go to the Family History Library and use the microfilm there (or hire someone to do it for us) or we order it to be delivered to a local Family History Center and use it there.
Now… there is a hitch here. Right now, we can view the microfilm right at the FHL if we happen to be in Salt Lake City, or order the film to be delivered to any of the FHCs or to a Family History Library affiliate. It’s that third group that we’re going to be losing for some of these records.
Both the FHL and the FHCs are directly associated with the LDS Church and under its control. The affiliates are not. They’re often public or genealogical libraries like, for example, the DAR Library in Washington, D.C., or the Clayton Library in Houston.
And because of contractual issues, some of the digitized record sets aren’t available at the affiliates.
That will be an inconvenience, since there are a lot of affiliates with a lot more hours of accessibility than any FHC can offer. Most FHCs are open only a day or two a week for only a few hours at a time.
I don’t want to understate the inconvenience here, but I don’t want to overstate it either. Before there was an affiliate program, and before any records were digitized, this go-to-FHL-or-FHC system was all we had. We handled it before. We can handle it again. And once we get there, we won’t need fancy readers (many of which were broken when we needed them), and we won’t have to crank any films: it’ll be digital on any computer on site.
We may want to have everything available online at 3 a.m. in our bunny slippers, or even at an affiliate at 1 p.m. on a Friday, but we can live with this.
3. INCONVENIENCE: Records not yet digitized will only be available on microfilm at limited locations. If the specific microfilmed record hasn’t yet been digitized, it may only be available at the Family History Library or, if the film is already on long-term loan, at a Family History Center or affiliate where it is on long-term loan.
This is an inconvenience for sure, but we can help make it a relatively minor inconvenience — or at least it should only be minor if we order microfilm we think we might need in the coming months before the August 31 deadline.
Anything we think we might need before the end of 2020 that isn’t digitized now can be ordered for what’s called extended loan before August 31. So right now we can all make a major effort to consider what our research priorities will be in the next 40-44 months (until the end of 2020, when the digitization will be pretty much complete) and pony up to have the films for that research sent on long-term loan to one of the FHCs or one of the affiliates.
Film that’s already there at any of these locations doesn’t have to be sent back: “centers, including affiliate libraries, may continue to maintain microfilm collections already on loan from FamilySearch after microfilm ordering ends. Centers have the option to return microfilm that is available online or otherwise not needed.”3
Now I get it: this isn’t fun and it isn’t free. Long-term loans are $18.75 a roll, and it isn’t realistic to think we can anticipate — or afford — all of the films we might need in the next three-plus years. But we can mitigate some of the pain by planning ahead and getting key record sets we know we’re going to want local access to into a convenient FHC or affiliate now.
If we don’t get the film into a convenient location now, we’re going to have to access it in person only at the FHL or hire someone to retrieve the record for us.
4. MAJOR INCONVENIENCE: Some records now available only on what are called vault films won’t be available at all until they are digitized. Depending on where a specific roll of microfilm is in the filming queue, if you need access to a specific set of records, you may not be able to get to it until the end of 2020.
For example, right now, Book 7 of the Circuit Court Minutes for Cherokee County, Alabama, is divided between two rolls of microfilm. Pages 1-107 are Item 4 on roll 2296893, and that’s at the Family History Library. But Pages 107 to the end are item 1 on roll 2296894 — and that’s listed as a Granite Mountain Record Vault film.
That’s a problem.
Because, according to the Frequently Asked Questions page, anything not already at the Family History Library isn’t going to be accessible even at the Family History Library: “The library will no longer be able to offer ordering of new films from the vault.”4
That doesn’t mean I can’t get to any copy of these records. They’re on microfilm at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, and likely at some local libraries in Alabama as well. That won’t be convenient in any way — it’ll be a major inconvenience to get to them — but it doesn’t mean they won’t be available at all.
And, again, if I plan ahead and order the film for long-term loan now, I may be able to have it available locally until it gets reached in the digitization process. Or I may simply have to wait it out until the digitization process gets around to this film.
That’s certainly a major inconvenience.
5. HUGE INCONVENIENCE: Some records now available only on what are called vault films won’t be available at all if FamilySearch can’t resolve contract issues. The biggest issue I can see is that some of these vault films — and that includes some critically important international films — may never be digitized because of contract issues.
If it can’t be digitized at all, and it can’t be ordered for access even at the FHL, then we’re going to lose any chance of getting to the record except in its native locale.
I’m using the term “huge inconvenience” here when what I really mean is “potentially catastrophic record access loss for everyone not wealthy or healthy enough to travel, sometimes internationally.”
We don’t know and won’t know for some time how many films fall into this last category.
We can only hope they will be few and far between.
Sigh… we knew this day was coming.
Progress doesn’t always look like progress, does it?
- “FamilySearch Digital Records Access Replacing Microfilm,” FamilySearch, posted 26 June 2017 (http://media.familysearch.org/ : accessed 28 June 2017). ↩
- Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints pay for this through their tithes; those of us who are not church members are along for a free ride. ↩
- “What will happen to microfilms at family history centers once ordering is discontinued?,” FAQ: Digital Records Access Replacing Microfilm, FamilySearch, posted 26 June 2017 (https://familysearch.org/ask/faq : accessed 28 June 2017). ↩
- Ibid., “Will microfilm continue to be available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City?” ↩