"Wait a minute, you still use microfilm? Aren't all newspapers digitized these days?"
This is a statement we hear pretty regularly at the Western History and Genealogy Department, and it's one that we completely understand. After all, in the age of the Internet, almost anything you've ever read is available in just a few keystrokes. Right?
Thanks to the high cost of digitization and the labor associated with indexing and scanning newspapers, most historic newspapers and documents are still available in just one format: microfilm.
Microfilm, as it turns out, is an incredibly robust format for viewing the written word that, in all likelihood, will be with us for many years to come.
So what exactly makes microfilm so special?
Efficiency and Affordability
For starters, microfilm is a very efficient means for institutions like Denver Public Library to bring large print collections to their customers. In a building like the Central Library, where storage space is at a premium, microfilm allows us to store a huge number of newspapers in a very small space.
How small a space? We currently house a complete run of the Rocky Mountain News (1859-2009) and the Denver Post (1894-present) in a series of file cabinets that are just 4 ft 6 inches tall and 12.5 feet long. (And that includes six empty drawers for growth!)
Of course these aren't the only microfilms that are housed at DPL. In the Western History Department you'll find a wide range of historic Colorado newspaper like Cervi's Journal as well as more modern newspapers like Colorado Gambler.
Microfilm also allows DPL customers to access large book collections such as Western Americana Frontier History of the Trans-Mississippi West, as well as doctoral dissertations and masters theses from history students in Colorado and across the world.
On our genealogy side, we house hundreds of historic documents such as New Mexico church records, ship passenger lists, and naturalization records on microfilm. These documents are available to any DPL customer and are an incredible resource for genealogists.
If you've ever run across an old newspaper, you know that newsprint isn't exactly a stable format. Modern newsprint is made from wood pulp and becomes extremely fragile over time. This makes handling historic newspapers (on a regular basis anyway) a near impossibility. Microfilm, however, allows library customers to access the oldest newspapers we've got, anytime they want. (The originals are housed in our storage areas and are only accessible if the microfilm copies are for some reason not legible.)
Even better, if a water pipe were to break over our microfilm storage cases, the microfilm would be just fine. That's a big deal when you consider how much damage a small amount of water could do a historic newspaper collection.
The Modern Microfilm Reader
Today's microfilm readers are designed to work with the formats modern researchers are used to and include a scanning function for making digital copies. DPL customers who want electronic copies of historic newspapers and documents can simply transfer their scans to a USB drive, put them in a cloud storage service like Dropbox, or e-mail them.
For those customers who prefer hard copies, printed copies are available for 10¢ a page. (And, yes, we do take credit and debit cards.)
If you don't know how to to use a microfilm reader, the WHG staff is more than happy to walk you through the basics. It's much easier than you might think!
While the march of digitization is certain to continue forward in the years to come, it's also safe to say that microfilm will be with us for some time. Even if we, and every other institution, started massive digitization projects today, there is so much material that's been microfilmed that it would be decades before it all made it online. Until that day comes, we'll still be using microfilm and it will still be as useful as it is today.