1. Microforms in Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1 of Managing Microforms in the Digital Age

Historic Overview

Microfilming originated in the nineteenth century when English scientist John Benjamin Dancer, the father of microphotography, experimented with novelty publications that combined text and photographs in 1839. In 1853, he successfully sold microphotographs as slides to be viewed under a microscope.1 Capitalizing on Dancer’s techniques, French optician Rene Dragon was granted the first patent for microfilm in 1859, after which he began the first commercial microfilming enterprise by producing and selling souvenir items. One of the first practical uses for microforms occurred during the fall and winter of 1870–71, when Paris was surrounded by the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War. The French used carrier pigeons to fly microfilmed messages (hidden in the hollow of a quill) across German lines into the capital city. In the 1920s, a New York banker named George McCarthy developed the first practical commercial use of microfilm. In 1925, he was issued a patent for his Checkograph machine, which was designed to make permanent film copies of all banking records. The Eastman Kodak firm bought his invention in 1928 and began marketing it through Kodak’s Recordak Division. After the 35mm microfilm camera was perfected, Recordak expanded its services in 1935, filming and publishing the New York Times on microfilm.2

Two important events in 1938 helped to expedite the use of microforms for preservation in libraries. Because newspapers were deteriorating so rapidly and because storing quantities of newspaper presented practical use challenges, Harvard University Library began its Foreign Newspaper Project. The project is still underway and the microform masters are housed at the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) in Chicago. Second, Eugene Power, founder of University Microfilms International (UMI), decided to expand UMI from microfilming foreign and rare books to include microfilming and marketing doctoral dissertations.3

World War II provided many opportunities for the use of microphotography for military mail and espionage. An example was the Victory Mail (V-Mail) system. US soldiers and sailors stationed overseas and their loved ones at home wrote letters on special forms that were microphotographed and airlifted as microfilm, which saved weight and space aboard military transport aircraft. Once the film arrived at the plane’s destination, a hard copy was created and forwarded to the recipient. In the 1940s, the unprecedented immediacy of war and its potential threats to the US homeland populace, community, and national well-being raised a keen new awareness of the value of library and archival materials as cultural resources. The security and preservation of these assets became an official defense objective. The expansion of more refined methods in intelligence gathering led to truly extraordinary actions by individual librarians, curators, soldiers, and ordinary citizens that positively impacted the movement towards preservation of cultural material.4 During the last years of the war and the immediate postwar period, the specter of potential destruction of the world’s collective records and cultural resources lent an urgency to the monumental task of microfilming civic records, documents, archives and collections of all kinds. A number of countries started agencies engaged in similar preservation and conservation initiatives in the postwar period. Many enlightened and concerned people came to see the destruction of books as a crime against humanity, and their preservation actions inspired a new level of communication and commitment among key figures in the worlds of culture, scholarship, and politics.

During the Cold War years, the condensed microform continued to be further developed and widely used for espionage and secret service. The idea of using microforms for both active information systems and for the preservation of materials found many new supporters.5 Although microforms had been collected by libraries since the 1930s, the acquisition of microforms by libraries and archives became more widespread in the 1950s and 1960s with the development of uniform testing standards by the Library of Congress (LC), the availability of grant funds for both production and purchase, and the introduction of new reprographic equipment by companies such as Xerox and Kodak. Increased funding and improved technologies encouraged academic and research libraries to continue expanding their applications of this format. Increased in-house microfilming and processing for the government ensued, as did the sales of micrographic equipment.

Development of new standards, the passage of a new copyright law, and the appearance of cheaper, higher-quality film types in the 1970s contributed to continued integration of microforms into library collections. The information explosion that libraries faced in the 1970s allowed microforms to lead the way as an alternative medium, addressing and ameliorating the problem of rapidly decreasing shelf space, as well as avoiding the burgeoning expense of print materials and journal binding. Micropublishers, large and small, provided monographic sets, documents, journals, and other materials on a single-purchase or a standing-order basis. Improvements in microform reading equipment also helped to make this desirable money saving option a more realistic application. Microforms gained further acceptance by the ever-growing needs of the legal, medical, and business records professions. Computer output microforms were used to create insurance and hospital records, college catalogs, patent records, census records, publisher catalogs, library catalogs, and many types of business records.

In the 1980s and 1990s the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded two major initiatives: the Brittle Books program, intended to secure a future for nineteenth- and twentieth-century material printed on poor-quality acidic papers, and the United States Newspaper Project (USNP), a cooperative effort to catalog and microfilm newspapers from municipalities in every US state and territory. Many service bureaus and preservation microfilming operations augmented in-house facilities established mainly in the 1950s to accommodate new and larger library markets. Preservation initiatives such as newspaper microfilming projects and the microfilming of manuscript and collections and endangered brittle books found support from funding agencies including the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the NEH, and others.

At this same time, the standards and guidelines published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), International Organization for Standardizations (ISO) and Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) were revised and vetted by the industry—as well as by library and archival community—to strengthen and clarify the specifications for the high quality and longevity of preservation microfilm. In addition, to ensure greater accessibility of all microforms, bibliographic control was addressed and advanced.6

A shift in acquisitions began towards the end of the 1990s, however, from microforms to electronic formats. This period saw the rise of online databases and indexes, the increased development and accessibility of full-text journals, the digitization of dissertations and theses, and the emergence of e-books. Libraries began eliminating their standing orders for journals in microform, and in some cases, newspapers on microfilm. As the number of libraries purchasing microforms declined, the micropublishing costs rose. By the turn of the twenty-first century, microfilm journals were not as much of a cost savings over bound print as they had once been.

Yet even in the digital age microforms continue to serve an important role, particularly for archiving purposes. For some types of source documents, the black-and-white rendering on film secures an accurate and faithful reproduction, providing a legally reliable surrogate that cannot be altered without detection. Microfilm is a proven, reliable, and relatively inexpensive preservation and long-term storage medium for documents expected to have limited use. An unknown quantity of research material, likely to no longer be available in hard copy, survives in microfilm collections. In addition, microfilm continues to provide reliable access to print artifacts determined by conservators to be too fragile to serve their intended use.7

Once purchased, properly created, and processed, microforms require very little active preservation beyond storage, careful handling, and occasional surveying to evaluate condition. Digital, online, and electronic resources often depend on active preservation activities such as licensing, subscription, migration, checksum registration, and other active digital audit activities. The long-term preservation of digital formats also involves, at the very least, ongoing costs for infrastructure and data management. The obvious advantages of digital formats, however, include more readily obtainable and less costly color rendering than archival color microfilm, global accessibility for multiple simultaneous users, and the power of keyword searchability.

Collections custodians have the option to continue exploring hybrid combinations of film and digital formats or to focus instead on long-term retention decisions based on a solid understanding of the life expectancy of microforms, their potential repurposing as digital surrogates, and the demanding curation needs of digital archives.


With so many journals now available online, the advantages of accessing journals on microform are fewer than in the past. Microform was seen as a reliable backup system in libraries where theft and mutilation of print journals were major problems or where protection of the collection against deterioration was of concern. For the increasingly smaller number of journals not yet available electronically as full text, these continue to be perceived as factors for consideration. Another major concern has been space conservation for libraries lacking sufficient space for housing growing collections of bound or unbound print journals. Microforms may still be an option for this purpose when titles are not available in electronic form or where the cost of the online journal exceeds the cost of microform. Sometimes the price of microform for a title exceeds the cost of purchasing and binding the print, and the library may have to evaluate options based on budget impact versus space constraints.

Despite the many current worthwhile digital archiving initiatives, concern continues over the ability to retain permanent access and access rights to the digital formats. One possible solution to retaining permanent access rights would be to negotiate this point into contractual agreements. A number of collaborative initiatives are working to create alternatives for long-term access that companies cannot or will not provide. One of these is Portico, a community-supported archive of electronic scholarly content. Another is Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe (LOCKSS), an open-source digital preservation system that allows participating libraries to back-up their own and each other’s digital content. The idea of both is ensuring that content will be preserved and accessible should the vendors’ systems fail.


Several factors discourage the maintenance of print newspaper collections. Binding is costly for large format serials, and replacement issues can be difficult to obtain. The size and weight of bound newspapers make handling and basic use cumbersome and make proper shelving, space-demanding and expensive. Newspapers continue to be printed on inexpensive and relatively unstable paper that deteriorates somewhat sooner than other printed materials and tends to discolor readily when exposed to light sources with uncontrolled levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These factors limit the potential for hard copy newsprint to maintain its original flexibility and appearance over time.

Newspapers continue to be heavily used by researchers. In paper format, however, access tends to be limited to on-site use in libraries and archives. Bound volumes of newsprint are rarely lent through interlibrary loan. Ideally, newspaper originals are unfolded and stored flat in unbound in alkaline-buffered, lignin-free boxes, protected from the damaging effects of light and atmospheric pollutants. Protected in this way, newspapers can meet the needs of researchers, historians, and casual readers for an extended time but are likely to show signs of deterioration and damage with frequent use.

While the amount of online content continues to grow, newspapers on 35mm microfilm remain a viable strategy for the preservation of print newspapers. Microfilm has been used since the 1940s for the long-term storage of newspaper content because the medium preserves file integrity, maintains the proper sequence of the data, and discourages theft. Micropublishers have contracts with major newspapers and can produce microforms (typically reels of 35mm microfilm) efficiently for a large audience interested in replacing hard copies for long-term storage. Some institutions continue to hold microfilm backfiles of historic newspapers. Increasingly, technology is being developed to preserve the original digital files, usually portable document format (PDF), from which the print newspapers were created.

Brittle Books

Books and journals published from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1980s were usually printed on acidic paper that has a limited life expectancy. In the 1970s and 1980s, collection condition surveys conducted at the Library of Congress and other research libraries identified the brittle books catastrophe: more than 80 percent of the published materials in research libraries were imperiled due to acidic paper deterioration. A volume was determined to be brittle when a corner of a page, in the middle of the text, broke off after folding it up to four times. Some brittle books had damaged bindings and separated pages; while others looked remarkably intact. The fragility of the paper was a deterrent to access. Many libraries restricted the use of brittle books and stored them in protective enclosures in closed stacks.

To secure a useful future for the intellectual content of the brittle books and journals, libraries conducted microfilming projects to preserve large numbers of acidic or soon-to-be-brittle materials. Micropublishers, over the years, had microfilmed monographs and journals usually to sell as packaged, themed sets. In some cases, the products offered by micropublishers served as acceptable replacements for the brittle books. An acceptable replacement was defined as one that was readily available for purchase and was prepared according to standards and guidelines for longevity. Because many micropublishers could not supply acceptable replacements, libraries and archives turned to microfilm service bureaus to prepare preservation-quality microfilm. Some libraries conducted microfilming in-house. In most cases of brittle books microfilming projects, the libraries, rather than the service bureaus, held and continue to maintain the master negatives from those projects.

A widely held notion that books were destroyed and discarded during all microfilming projects is not entirely true. While this practice was conducted for a brief period in a small number of libraries, in many projects librarians opted to remove brittle books from general use after filming to protect them from further risk of damage and either maintain them in climate-controlled offsite storage or house them in nondamaging protective enclosures, usually in special collections. Further, not all institutions embarked on microfilming initiatives. As a result, in the aggregate, libraries, archives, and historical societies have retained a sufficient matrix of copies the meet the needs of researchers who seek to examine original print artifacts.

With the advent of mass digitization projects, many brittle titles are being digitized at major research libraries. To be digitized in a mass digitization project, the volume must be in reasonably good condition. Brittle books with foldouts or loose pages tend to be excluded from mass digitization workflows. While digital books are increasingly available online, it remains true that some will not soon be available online due their condition. Microfilm versions may continue to be the only source for access. In the future, second generation master negatives held by libraries may be digitized to augment the growing mass of material already available electronically. It is unlikely, however, that patron service collections of microforms sets and series will be used for mass digitization purposes due to improper care and handling frequently associated with poorly maintained and improperly operating viewing equipment.

Other Research Materials

In addition to monographs and journals, many other research materials are available in microforms. Dissertations and theses have been microfilmed by UMI (now ProQuest) since 1938. The Government Printing Office (GPO) has issued federal publications using a variety of microforms since 1973. NARA maintains an extensive catalog of federal court records, genealogical records, census records, military records, and much more. State and local governments preserve agency reports, court records, births, deaths, wills, deeds, land grants, plats, and maps using microforms. Additionally, many large microfilm sets contain the personal papers of literary figures, world leaders, and historians as well as well as the records of agencies, political parties, and other institutions.

Reference Notes

  1. Joshua Been, “Microforms," LIS 519: Selection, Acquisitions, and Management of Non-Book Materials, Dr. John Ellison (Formats Covered). The Department of Library and Information Studies, University of Buffalo. (This resource is currently unavailable online). [back]
  2. Joshua White, “Micrographics Serves State of Illinois for nearly 70 Years,” For the Record 21, no. 1 (2007): 1, www.cyberdriveillinois.com/publications/pdf_publications/fortherecordwinter07.pdf. [back]
  3. Shawn Martin, "EEBO, Microfilm, and Umberto Eco: Historical Lessons and Future Directions for Building Electronic Collections," Microform & Imaging Review 36, no. 4 (2007): 159–64. [back]
  4. Kathy Peiss, "Cultural Policy in a Time of War: The American Response to Endangered Books in World War II," Library Trends 55, no. 3 (2007): 370–86. [back]
  5. Been, 2007. [back]
  6. M. S. Sridhar, “Are Microforms Dead?” SRELS Journal of Information Management 32, no. 2 (2002): 139–52. [back]
  7. Steve Johnson, "Coming to our Census: The End of Microfilm?" The Cemetery Column Interment.net, 1999. www.interment.net/column/records/census/census.htm.  [back]

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