Wait a Minute, You Still Use Microfilm?
"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.
I'm curious... what is the shelf life of microfilm?
Good question, Keli. According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), a roll of microfilm has an expected lifespan of around 500 years.
That's longer than any digital format I can imagine.
500 years is the lifespan for preservation grade microfilm (silver-gelatin or silver-halide.) The microfilm in our public access cabinets (mostly diazo copies?) is reproduced from the preservation grade masters. Microfilm copies are not quite as stable (they degrade with UV exposure over time.) Perhaps a 50-100 year shelf life for the copies.
I like what Northeast Document Conservation Center says on its website about microfilm as a stable medium:
The enduring popularity of preservation microfilm is because of its practicality. Unlike its digital counterpart, microfilm is the product of a nearly static, tested technology that is governed by carefully crafted national standards.
Like "carefully crafted national standards" because it sounds just like a beer!
Make mine a micro...brew!
I've heard that one advantage to film versus digital is that you have that hard copy record that isn't as easily damaged, whereas with digital, if the data is corrupted, it is a mess. You can also easily splice together film and tape. I think it's a lot more fun to use one of the microfilm machines too. Wrrrrrrrrrrr slap slap slap slap.
Hi Keegan - You are correct about microfilm's legendary durability. We regularly re-splice leaders on films that have been loved a little too much. Also, the copies we have are just that, copies. The master reels are usually stored away someplace safe where they can be quickly called up when duplicates are needed. Thanks for a great question!
In the 60's I worked for a brand new company called Information Handling Services. It was located in a warehouse in what is now known as the Denver Tech Center area. The company I'm sure was bought out at some point, but at the time, they had several contracts with the Government, including the Military and all of the paperwork was being put on microfilm. We filmed thousands and thousands of paper, all different sizes and types. Microfilm or Microfiche was very new at that time and it was considered a state of the art process. I really enjoyed working with the filming and afterwards the proofreading.on the machines. It felt good to be a part of something that was so important and would be used for many years to come!
I purchased a house that was built in 1916 and would really like to get information on all the history of owners and/or pictures of the house back in 1916. Is that something that might be in the records here?
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