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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Microfilm Memories

Man microfilming newspapers. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
A “Throwback Thursday” seems like an ideal time to contemplate that quaint photographic technology called microfilm, which nearly everyone assures me is obsolete in the face of digital technology. Many gazillions of rolls of microfilm are being supplanted in libraries and other repositories by digital copies. Internet searches on microfilm indicate that it is dead or dying. Yet just this month I found advertisements for new, sleek, futuristic (and expensive) microfilm cameras. I haven’t researched this apparent contradiction (fake news or fake advertising?), but it is clear that microfilm is hardly as popular as it once was as a means of (a) preservation copying or (b) miniaturization. As Bob Horton, the Chair of the National Museum of American History's Archives Center notes, "One of the biggest reasons people prefer digital to microfilm is we all carry the capacity to read digital images in our pocket – reading microfilm is a bit more challenging."

I first became fascinated with microfilm while researching its rather romantic history (think microphotography for espionage) for our museum’s exhibitions on the history of photography years ago. Later I took a course on microfilming as a preservation tool from the Northeast Document Conservation Center, partly because the Archives Center had inherited an ancient Recordak microfilm camera from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and I wondered if we had a use for it. I experimented with it, and exposed and processed some film. As a favor to Dr. Alixa Naff, donor of the Archives Center’s Naff Arab American Collection, I filmed two books borrowed from other institutions, adding one microfilm to her collection, and establishing the other, the History of Young Men of Deir-El-Kamar and Suburbs: Account Book, ca. 1926-1950, as a separate collection. Although the latter has been used by researchers, no one ever asked to purchase a copy of the entire microfilm until this month. In order to fill the request, I’ve had to consider whether a microfilm copy or asking the requester to pay for a digital version would be most suitable.

Microfilm has been criticized because so much of it is of dismally low quality, especially in terms of operator errors such as skipped pages. Operator errors were often blamed on the evils of the mind-numbing repetitious work. After using a microfilm camera myself, I became convinced that a culture of speed and a production-line mentality actually caused the operator fatigue, boredom, and carelessness that produced many mistakes. I explored the benefits of slower, meticulous filming—for which the old-fashioned microfilm camera was actually well-suited. On one hand, the classic Kodak Recordak camera seemed primitive because it lacked a variable-aperture lens. On the other, uniform exposure was achieved by altering the light level with a rheostat; the camera, perfected in the 1930s, had a built-in light meter! It also had an auto-focus feature, plus a rangefinder for greater precision, meaning that one could change the height of the camera without refocusing. You could take the time to match the camera height to the size of the item being photographed (as any conscientious photographer using an ordinary camera on a copy stand would do to make lecture slides), yet without seriously impeding the production level and rhythm of microfilming. It seemed to me that the practice of framing each object individually, utilizing the autofocus feature, could in itself aid consistency.

Speaking of speed, when we began scanning the Archives Center’s Scurlock collection negatives, it was clear that microfilming was much faster than scanning! Through a pilot project with a contractor, several thousand Scurlock negatives had been microfilmed, and we later obtained sample scans of impressive visual quality from a few frames, giving us both preservation surrogates and versatile digital versions.

My favorite feature of the Recordak was its variable frame size, combined with an automatic, compensating film wind. If you desired, you could produce a sequence of frames of different sizes, such as a vertical image on the film, followed by a wide panorama. I discovered that most microfilmers seemed unaware of these nifty features, generally setting the camera height for the largest item in a particular job—for example, a newspaper page—then never adjusting the camera height for smaller items. The user of the film was expected to change the viewer magnification, thereby contributing to microfilm-viewing fatigue. It seemed to me that the technical advantages of microfilm camera design were seldom exploited to good advantage. I know: that concern may be moot nowadays.

The Archives Center’s Scurlock collection includes photographs showing microfilm camera operators at work, as above, evidently with the familiar Recordak cameras.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
National Museum of American History, Archives Center


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