One of the most fantastic library/research-related things that happened to me last year was being told by a librarian at The State Historical Society of Wisconsin that I could request the microfilm I needed for a research project via Inter Library Loan (ILL). I was floored! I think my university’s ILL department was also surprised when I put in the request. They told me that the university library does not have a microfilm reader. Floored again!
In the late 1980s I worked as a periodicals clerk at the College of DuPage Library. The periodicals department was responsible for the microfilm collections. My boss, Rose McDuff (an excellent supervisor and wonderful human being), would have me watch researchers like a hawk when they were using microfilm. I cannot stress enough that microfilm was treated like gold back then.
Microfilm was widely used in the 20th century to make copies of fragile newspaper collections, which also helped ease storage demands (approximately 800 newspaper pages can fit on one roll of microfilm). An early form of this technology was created by John Benjamin Dancer in 1839, but it wasn’t used commercially until the 1920s. The Southern Regional Library Facility at UCLA offers this brief history of microfilm, which was part of an exhibit.
Before the internet, microfilm was the primary source for research involving newspapers, magazines, and other documents.
If you haven’t seen microfilm before, it is a long strip of plastic onto which small B&W images of print materials have been reproduced. The film is rolled onto a reel and stored in a box like the above. To read microfilm, you need light and magnification. Microfilm reading machines come in different shapes and sizes. Below is the model at my local public library.
It is a Minolta MS-7000. I found a few used ones for sale online for between $2500 – $4500. The microfilm reader is connected to the computer on the right, which allows researchers to save PDF images of what they see on the screen that can then be downloaded onto a memory stick or printed.
You mount the reel you want to read onto the left side of the machine, pull out the film and run it under the glass below the magnifier, and then spool it onto the reel on the right side. Once the film is securely mounted, hand-operated controls move the film forward or backward. One of the problems I tried to prevent as a periodicals clerk was students spinning the film forward or backward as fast as the machine would allow, which could break the film. (I understand the temptation. It does make an exciting whirring sound.) Most machines have zoom-in features and can rotate the view if necessary. Sometimes images on the film are arranged vertically, sometimes horizontally.
Modern newspapers and other records are usually comfortable to read on microfilm, but older newspapers with small, smudged printing and stains or tears can be challenging. Below is an example from the March 6, 1886 edition of Peck’s Sun. You can see how the paper fold was perhaps grimy or chipping due to age, and sections are unreadable. Or maybe it was poorly printed. On a side note, I enjoy looking at old ads. This page featured a column aimed at literary women. Clever placement for an ad announcing a free trial for impotent men.
In an age when most people assume everything is being digitized, you might be surprised to learn that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) still microfilms some incoming records. Digital records do not last that long (search “data rot”), and the machines used to read various digital file formats become obsolete at a faster and faster rate. Digital storage also consumes a lot of energy. Microfilm, if stored in a cool, dry location, has a life expectancy of 500 years. Not as good as papyrus, vellum, or some paper, but much better than digital.
As you can gather from the above photos, my ILL request for the microfilm was granted. The two boxes of microfilm arrived on my doorstep in a regular padded manila envelope. I drove to my public library to use the microfilm reader thinking about my old microfilm days with Rose McDuff.
Have you used microfilm or one of its microform cousins?