Tuesday, November 21, 2006


A graduate student complained that Indiana University requires him to pay $60 to make a microfiche copy of his Ph.D. dissertation.

Many universities have various hidden fees they charge you just as you are about to graduate. Usually these fees total in the $100 range, low enough so that you just cough up and pay them as $100 doesn't mean too much in the grand scheme of life. Still there should be some warning, perhaps in the admissions letter.

Be aware that after you have fulfilled all the requirements, written and successfully defended your thesis, you will not receive a Ph.D. until you have also paid the following fees…
But why Microfiche? Wouldn't an electronic copy of the thesis make more sense. Several universities require a bound paper copy, partly for tradition and part just in case the PDF files of today cannot be read by next century's computers. I doubt the last part—there are too many PDFs around today for us not to have a way to look at them in the future.

I was a microfiche wizard in high school. When I did reports on 20th century history, I would go back to the original New York Times articles to get a first hand perspective. But with the Internet and back articles available electronically, microfiche is an aging technology. In the past decade I've used microfiche exactly once—to track down a box score of a baseball game I went to long ago.

I suspect microfiche will go the way of sliderules and typewriters. Before they die, someone (Google?) will scan in the old microfiche and covert them to PDFs. Wouldn't it be better for the Indiana University library to get a free high-quality PDF now instead of an expensive scanned PDF in the future?


  1. My father was a historian who had a collection of rolls of microfilm of 16th century hand-written letters and I have a certain nostalgia about trying to decipher their white-on-black images projected on a wall in a darkened room. On the other hand, searching the 2-d microfiche grid for pages of the New York Times on a fuzzy screen in a brightly lit library held no allure.

    You don't mention the two most important advantages of PDF relative to microfiche: cost and searchability.

    In the 1990's, my wife worked at an insurance company whioh, every month, shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars of microfiche of documents for signed policies and handwritten documents for claims off to secure storage at remote sites. (This kind of storage is required by law.) They had automated technology to find the right sheaves of microfiche to look at but after that they had to search by hand.

    About 8 or 9 years ago they converted their processes to PDF files. Even with the ongoing backup and storage costs of the hard media that the vendors provided, the savings were also in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month.

    However, the big advantage was that they could run OCR directly on the scanned PDF files and create text-searchable documents.
    As a result, it was worthwhile to rescan all their old microfiche as PDF files, run OCR, and do everything electronically.

    Wouldn't it be great if the same thing could happen to all that research microfilm and microfiche out there?

  2. It's a great idea, and many universities and libraries are working hard at making it a reality. Still libraries are slow and cautious beasts, and universities are [rightfully] looking ahead, so this isn't always at the top of their 'things to do' list.[even though it should be]

    As for PDF - there are other options for preserving precious documents. Some thoughts of a person involved in the [digital]preservation business; "why-pdf-sucks"

    "It is a wretched format for any digital object that has any conceivable future use other than perusal by a sighted human being. It’s terrible for the print-disabled. It’s terrible for text-mining. It’s terrible for transclusion or other reuse. It’s terrible for metadata-embedding."

    [So skip the PDF and lets avoid a 'Digital Dark Ages'.]

    In the meantime - Microfilm lasts longer than PDF. It's a tried an tested technology, with stable media, that is cheap to store. You can see why some libraries haven't moved yet. Don't worry - the publish or perish imperitive will force them to move to digital submission in the next couple of years for new materials, and this help pave the way for the [very expensive] retrospective digitisation projects of microfilm.

    Just say NO to PDF!



  3. Lance points out that there are enough documents already in PDF form to prevent us forgetting about how to access the format in the future. I am not such a big fan of PDF but it does provide an ability to control content so that it can be password protected and limited changes can be authenticated. That has to count for something.

    If you want these features but don't like Adobe's hold on PDF then you can always switch to ODF or OpenXML but they will only do the job if the number of documents in those formats gets large enough. With the former's use in Google's word-processor and the latter's inclusion in MS Office 2007 and I won't be surprised if they do.