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Why Photocopy, When You Can PDF?

February 10, 2012

We recently had a call from a member of a session in Florida, routed to me because the session asked to have their records returned. Returns aren't unheard of. Congregations may need to do extensive research in their own records to resolve property disputes, write histories, or celebrate anniversaries.

But archivists are trained to ask questions of our patrons. So I asked, "Do you need to do some research in the materials?"

"No, we were going to photocopy all of them to have a copy here."

This response isn't all that uncommon either. Many congregations see the photocopier as the quickest route to preserving their official records. But there are serious drawbacks to photocopying, and there are better alternatives.

For nineteenth- or twentieth-century volumes, the crushing, spine-breaking, and blasts of light associated with photocopying are significantly damaging. Even in the case of unbound recent records, precious church staff time is expended, the images produced may have lost text in the margins or gutters, and the end product will still be susceptible to decay. Photocopier toner has a propensity to bind to itself, especially in the presence of a three-ring binder's vinyl. In that event, the church photocopies everything, and repeats the process five years later.

We maintain a microfilm program at PHS for exactly these contingencies. Start with handling: We shoot bound volumes in a book cradle, and the light output required is dramatically less than what a photocopier puts out. The film produced is silver-halide emulsion on a 35mm polyester base. This material is agreed to persist for 500 years.

The best part for congregations is that fragile materials preserved on microfilm can be safely and rapidly digitized. Once we've produced a microfilm surrogate of your records, the film can be scanned, and the images compiled into a PDF document. Typewritten text in the original has optical character recognition (OCR) performed on it, making the document keyword-searchable. Now, instead of flipping through hundreds of pages of minutes, congregations can press CTRL-F and find what they seek.

And since PHS subsidizes the cost of the program for congregations, we can provide a preservation-worthy and an easily accessible surrogate for your records at less than the cost of church staff time.

It turned out that our friends in Florida were swayed by our arguments for preservation and accessibility. Success! Their microfilm and their digital edition are now en route.

Please visit our website for more information about how our microfilm program can help your congregation, or email me at