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Reformatting Records

Records come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and types, such as hand-copied ledger books, newspaper files, and various forms created over time to record information for licenses, court orders, and permits. Unstable or heavily used records may require transfer to another format, such as microfilm or permanent paper, to ensure preservation of the information they contain.


Records are microfilmed to preserve their information, reduce wear and tear on originals, save space, and improve access. Copies of film can be distributed to off-site locations, providing access to more than one user at a time. Some records retention schedules allow for the early disposal of records once microfilmed. If properly processed and stored, black-and-white, saver gelatin microfilm has a usable life of about 500 years, far longer than the useful life of many poor-quality original paper records. Even if original paper records were damaged, stolen, or destroyed, the information from those records would still survive if the originals had been filmed and stored in a safe, preferably off-site, location.


Microfilm all vital records. Vital records are those that are essential to the resumption or continuation of operations (or, both); to the recreation of the legal and financial status of government in the organization; or to the protection and fulfillment of obligations that the, organization has made. Vital records are among the permanent records for which an organization has long-term responsibility.

Typical vital records include board minutes and tax, birth, Marriage, deed, and death records. Also regard inventories and finding aids as vital records. Many record schedules indicate which records are vital.

Historical societies and courthouses often keep files of local newspapers that are in poor

Condition and consume a considerable amount of space. They are ideal candidates for microfilming. Many community newspapers are already available on microfilm through the Newspaper Project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Before investing limited resources to film published materials, first check local and regional repositories and databases to see if the items have already been filmed. The State Historical Society of 1owa has an extensive collection of this microfilm.

Because of their value as artifacts, you should also preserve newspapers printed prior to the Civil War in their original format.

Microfilm Service Companies

Microfilming is a technically, complex and labor-intensive operation. In addition to the obvious expense of cameras, microfilming requires equipment for processing and copying, and there must be bibliographic and technical assessments of the completed films. Microfilm personnel need appropriate training. Equipment demands ongoing maintenance to produce completed film, which will meet required standards. It is possible that a professional microfilm service company can microfilm records more economically than setting up an in-house operation.

It is vitally important to evaluate the qualifications of any microfilm service company. Network with other record custodians and inquire about their experiences with microfilming agents. Contact potential agencies by phone. Question them about their experience filming records that are bound, fragile, or oversized. Ask the microfilming agent for at least three references from other government agencies or historical societies and contact these organization's to see how the vendor handled records, met deadlines, and responded to refilming corrections. Visit the microfilm vendor's operation. Ask questions about standards, procedures, and security.

Physical Preparation

Microfilm must contain all of the information, as it appears on an original record. Filming is conducted so that all individual documents and groups of documents maintain their numerical or sequential order. Correct order is essential to ensure that microfilmed records will be accepted as evidence in a court of law.

In most cases the records repository will prepare materials prior to, filming and contract with a microfilm service company for the actual filming of the records. Before filming, remove all paper clips, staples, and other fasteners from the records. Gently open and flatten all records in preparation for filming. Use a soft white brush to remove from the records any surface dirt that might reduce resolution or sharpness of the final microfilmed image.

Take the time to verify that records are prepared in the correct order to be filmed. Note where records are incomplete, illegible, or misnumbered, and be sure to provide this information to the microfilm service agency with the records to be filmed.

Bibliographic Preparation

An indexing system is usually required for finding records on a reel of microfilm. Micrographics standards require eye-legible targets at the beginning of a reel that state the name of the government or agency that is the creator of the records on the film, the title of the record series, and its inclusive dates. Targets must also be included to indicate any irregularities in the original records. Targets can be prepared by the microfilm service agency from information supplied by the office repository.

Once records have been filmed, remember to change your finding aids to direct users to request microfilm rather than the originals.


A written contract will outline specific requirements and describe the record series to be filmed. Include cubic feet or number of items, if known. Specify in this contract that all work must be done according to the standards established by the Association for Information and Image Management.

Research several companies and determine whether other agencies were pleased with the quality of their work. Solicit bids for the project from at least three companies.


Micrographics standards define exactly what should happen in the microfilming process to ensure that the end product is of the highest possible. Standards prescribe appropriate targets,

targets, density and. resolution, film quality, processing, and quality control. The standards also prescribe the creation of a camera negative (security copy), a printing negative (reproduction copy), and use copies. All microfilm whether produced by a microfilm service company or in house, must meet these standards.

Digital Scanning

While scanning records for electronic use allows access by multiple users and saves space, digital scanning requires an expensive commitment to supporting technologies used to convert and retrieve records. Moreover, digital technology is not yet standardized, and new developments are continually occurring. Microfilm is a stable technology and a proven method for preserving records. Microfilm records first. At a later date, the microfilm copy can be scanned for ready access as needed.


Photocopying is another way to preserve the informational content of records. Records on poor-quality papers and those generated by thermofax copying processes or pressure-transfer forms are unstable.

Transfer information from these records to alkaline papers that meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for permanent paper, Z39.48-1991. Suchpapers are readily available from paper distributors upon request. Copying onto stable alkaline paper will help to ensure the long-term preservation of the information contained in a record.

Make all preservation photocopies using a black and white copy machine. Color photocopies may not be stable over the long term.

Create Surrogates for Research Use

As a records custodian, you are protecting the rights of both present and future users to have access to records. Continued use of originals can prevent future access to information if records become damaged through excessive wear. Make photocopies to serve as "use copies," or surrogates for the originals. Write policies so that users have only limited access to originals when surrogates are available and explain to users why you are taking this extra care.

When making surrogates, never send original records through a document feeder on a photocopier. If it is necessary to feed oversized records through a copying machine designed exclusively for this purpose, place original documents in protective polyester sleeves prior to duplication.

Resources and Publications

The following publications are available on loan through the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board's Resource Library.

Nancy E. Eklington, ed. RLG Archives Microfilming Manual. Mountain View, CA: Research Libraries Group, Inc. (1994).

William P. Ptacek. Micrographics. NICLOG Technical Leaflet 110. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History (1989). Targeted to local governments, but useful for others.

Ken White. Choosing Microfilm Readers and Readers/Printers. Albany: New York State Archives and Records Administration. Local Records Information Leaflet No. 29.

Ken White. Preservation Microfilming. Albany: New York State Archives and Records Administration. Local Records Information Leaflet No. 35.

For assistance or additional information, contact.

Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board (1HRAB)
Jeffrey Dawson, Archives Supervisor
State Historical Society of Iowa
600 East Locust, Des Moines, IA 50319
Telephone: 515-281-7801

Assn. for Information & Image Management
AIIM International, 1100 Wayne Ave., Ste 1100
Silver Spring, MD 209110
Telephone: 301/587-8202
Fax: 301/5,87-2711

This pamphlet is based on one originally prepared by the Georgia Department of Archives and History. This adaptation was prepared with funds provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

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