Adventures in Microfilm

This semester, I have certainly gotten off to a running start. My classes are great, my internships are busy, and I’ve even been making new friends – well, if you consider ILLiad a friend. Interlibrary loan has been my lifeline as I’ve attempted to get work done for HIST 298.  I’ve made over a dozen requests, and the reels are coming in much faster than I can look at them. I actually have to restrain my microfilm time to two hours, because otherwise I would spend whole days looking at newspapers from the nineteenth century.

The microform viewing area is in an obvious place in the library, so it’s odd I hadn’t noticed it before. It’s a small, quiet, dark room with large desktops and strange-looking machines out of a science fiction movie. It was certainly overwhelming at first – there were so many buttons and lenses, I spent my first day just trying to figure out how to get the best scans for my portfolio. But now I can load and unload reels like a pro, and find exactly what I need. It still takes a few tries to get a good, focused scan of the paper, but I’m sure that will come with time.

While I have very specific tasks, I do get to take a few minutes to find other interesting tidbits. I love seeing mentions of familiar places, like the Fairhaven Railroad (which is now a beloved bike path) or Durfee Union Mills (where I used to work.) I also love reading through the advertisements – some were sexist, some were funny, and some were downright weird. (I kept a file of my favorite ones for posterity.)

But the real issue of the week for me was this: In the era of digitization, is any of this technology even relevant anymore? Newspapers are a dying breed – I notice this everyday when I walk by a stack of unopened Daily Collegian papers in my residence hall. Isn’t microfilm headed the same way? 

For many, it’s hard to understand why such microfilm readers are relevant anymore. They’re enormous and bulky, reels can be hard to come by, and it seems like a lot of work for one small picture. But there’s something magical about microfilm that a digital image just can’t reciprocate. According to NARA [National Archives and Records Administration], microfilm does have its benefits. Its low-cost, low-equipment storage and reliability is great for the stability of a historian’s work. Other than the necessity for instant access that only digital images can provide, microfilm seems to have the tenacity and staying power to be around for a long

Personally, part of the fun of microfilm is the fact that it IS old – that by using it, I’m saddled with the magnitude of working with an older technology alongside these primary documents. When historians talk about “diving into the archives,” I think you actually need the experience of working with these older technologies for a historical experience that digital ones can’t provide just yet. Unlike online sources like Ancestry, where I can put myself anywhere and be sucked back into history, the microform viewing area requires me to be aware of the weight of what I’m doing.  

My work with microfilm isn’t quite done yet – I still have several rolls of film on hold at the Circulation Desk – so my adventures in microfilm are not quite over. And, might I add, neither is microfilm’s adventures in the work of historians. 

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