There is a debate currently going on as to whether microfilm is acceptable to scholars and historians. Scholars say "No", while archivists say "yes". Archives lean more towards the geneologist community who are more focused on textual information, such as names, dates, etc. while scholars look beyond text, to pencil notations, stampings and markings, different colored inks, etc. Microfilm, the technology of the 1940s-1990s was the best way to preserve documents in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, microfilm does not provide an accurate representation of the document, leaving color out, as well as most markings, is under or over exposed, out of focus, making it unreadable. Microfilm requires a machine to view the document, and printing is expensive due to the toner and special paper required in many of the units.
Digitizing documents began in the mid 1990s, with products appearing on CD ROM, laser disc, and DVD. When the Internet became the new format, documents are now available as pdf, in zoomify, and other formats for easy viewing. Search engines make research quick, with database interfaces such as Greenstone organizing document collections, providing powerful search capabilities that once impossible, in seconds.
Our historical documents are in danger. Not only paper documents, but sound recordings, motion picture, photographs, etc. At the National Archives, as we search through the records in scope with the Lincolnarchives digital project, we are finding records that are deteriorating, text that is fading. In the motion picture division, the equipment used to show films of WWII, Korea and Vietnam are broken, with no avenues available to repair or replace these machines. Information saved on older equipment, or other technology such as floppy discs, tape drives, cds, etc. are in danger of being lost because the current technology will not read this data. Agencies responsible for preserving yet providing access are falling back on old practices of the 1950s still declaring that microfilm is preserving these documents, while libraries, universites, and such are removing their microfilm machines because they are expensive to maintain. Agencies are choosing to take the "cheap and dirty" route of providing access to records, by simply scanning bad microfilm instead of digitizing the originals at a high resolution to create a true preservation copy of the original.
After 9/11, Katrina, last year's fire in Georgetown, the fire at the National Archives facility in St. Louis which destroyed thousands of military records from WWI and WWII, agencies still are not preserving valuable documents in case originals are lost. In the case of the National Archives, they have no inventory of what they do have. Many documents in these facilities are being withheld from the public, declared "invaluable", yet no digital copy is being made available, leaving scholars and researchers without access. Conservationists claim that the records are being withheld in hopes that future technology will be able to provide a better solution to access. They claim that these documents are being preserved for future generations, yet no attempts are being made to provide the current generations with records from the 17th, 18th, and 19th century.
The educational community needs to become more involved with their state and local historical societies encouraging those agencies to use their funds wisely, not seeking a cheap alternative which does not address preservation or access. By scanning microfilm, these agencies are not addressing the necessity of preserving the originals in a digital format, not only for access, but to protect these documents before they degrade, losing valuable historical data. History happened in "color", for a reason, and to preserve them in anything less endangers our future generations from knowing their history.