Libraries and other archives face an ongoing battle with storage; there is simply not enough space in any library to physically house all the materials a library might want to keep on hand. Items such as newspapers do not store for long periods of time, yet are of tremendous value to researchers. Microfiche offers a solution to both of these problems, and is a popular archival method.
Microfiche is a way of storing documents via photographic film. Documents are photographed and then stored at a small size, too small to be read by the naked eye. It provides long term storage as long as it is kept in a stable environment. it does not require special training to read or use, and the only equipment needed is a reader. A common tool of libraries, they are also used by many other archives.
Microfiche images were stored on small transparent cards not much bigger than a photograph. The images are too small to read unaided, and require the use of a reader. The reader is essentially a light and a magnifying lens that then projects the image onto a screen. The images could then be scrolled through and even enlarged. Microfiche readers were often connected to a copier or printer so that the images could be printed. Copies could not be made from the cards themselves, of course, as the images were too small.
Microfiche's biggest advantage is that it allows for the storage of many documents in a small space. Materials that would require a room full of shelves can instead be stored on small cards that might then be kept in a filing cabinet. Entire volumes of books and journals can be kept this way. It also allows materials to be open to the public, even if the originals are not. For example, copies of plans for city buildings that might be required by law to be kept at city hall or a planning office can be reproduced on microfiche and kept in the public library.
One of the most common applications of microfiche is storing back copies of newspapers. This is an example not only of space saving but also of preservation. Old newspapers are stored on microfiche long after the original paper would have crumbled. Before the advent of digital media, microfiche was the only viable way to preserve newspaper and have it available to the general public. It is also heavily used for the storage of government documents, which would otherwise be too cumbersome to store in paper form.
Microfiche has largely been replaced now by digital media. Although CDs are not perfect, being susceptible to temperature and over-use, they have a number of advantages over microfiche. Foremost among these is the ability to index the information on digital media. A newspaper stored on CD is searchable through the use of software and key terms, for example, which is not the case with microfiche. Of additional benefit is the ability to use any computer instead of the bulky microfiche readers. Not all information has been transferred to digital media, however, so microfiche is still in use today even if it is not as prominent as it once was.