On June 25, 2017, FamilySearch announced that it will end its long-running microfilm loan program. After August 31, they will no longer accept requests for microfilm to be sent from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to the local Family History Centers or affiliate libraries. Here's what that could mean for you and your research.
(Note: You can read the original announcement in full on LDS.org, along with a follow-up announcement by FamilySearch. You should also read the "Frequently Asked Questions" that went along with the original announcement.")
For decades, genealogists have used the microfilm loan program to get microfilm sent from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to their local Family History Center or an affiliate library. That all ends as of September 1, 2017.
FamilySearch has digitized 1.5 million of the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm that are held at the Granite Mountain Vault. In their announcement, the plan is to have the remaining microfilm digitized by the end of 2020.
(Considering that when they started digitizing, they estimated it would take decades to complete the task. Now, it's just a few years away.)
Why Stop the Loans Before Digitization Is Complete?
So, why end the microfilm loan program now if digitization won't be complete until 2020? There are a couple of factors at play.
The first is the scarcity of blank microfilm. There is only one manufacturer of it left.
Borrowing a roll of microfilm through FamilySearch isn't like borrowing a book from the library. Your library (or another one if you're using interlibrary loan) would take the book off the shelf so you could borrow it. That would mean that book isn't available for anyone else to use. FamilySearch, however, makes a copy to send to the Family History Center or affiliate library.
The second reason is economics. The cost of a blank roll of microfilm is $85. Considering that FamilySearch charges only $7.50 per roll to borrow, you can see how the costs quickly add up.
FamilySearch alluded to the shift to digital as being one of access. When an image is online, it can be viewed by anyone with access to the Internet, whereas a microfilm can only be viewed by one person at a time and only in specific locations.
What About the Film Already at the Local FHCs?
According to the announcement, "When approved by priesthood leaders, centers 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."
What About Images That Are Currently Available Only at the Family History Library or a Local Family History Center?
I contacted Paul Nauta, Public Relations Manager for FamilySearch, to ask him about future access to restricted films and images.
According to him, there are no films that are currently limited to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but there are films that are restricted to LDS Church members and others that can only be viewed in a Family History Center.
Nauta added, "As we digitize remaining films or other content, anything that has viewing restrictions will be available to view in a Family History Center using the Image Viewer found in Family History Centers' desktop computers."
So what do we do between now and the time when the rest of the microfilm has been digitized and put online?
Any time there is change, the transition from old to new is the toughest part. (I worked at Ancestry when they turned off "old search," so I've seen this before.)
There are some researchers who are going to get tripped up in this, unfortunately. I feel for those who are working on a big project that is dependent upon rolls and rolls of FamilySearch microfilm.
Our options for accessing the material will be:
- Going to Salt Lake City to view the microfilm
- Hiring someone to go to SLC to view the microfilm for you
- Finding another library with a copy of the microfilm and then either visit there or see if it's available on interlibrary loan
- Going to wherever the original records are
My Take on It
There are going to be some bumps in the road as the remaining film is digitized and put online. There will be researchers who will have a tougher time until this project is complete.
However, I see this overall as a smart move by FamilySearch. The cost of the loan program is enormous. Though they haven't come out and said so, I suspect that it ends up impacting the amount of money they can spend on digitization efforts. By ending the loan program now, they can focus on digitization and making more of those microfilms available to everyone, not just those who can get to a Family History Center or affiliate library. That would mean that more records become accessible to more people more quickly than if they tried to maintain both the loan program and digitization.