David Schwartz processes a roll of microfilm, checking for any nicks or cuts before sending to an outside vendor for duplication for a researcher, March 3, 2006, by Eric Long. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image no. 2006-26369

Microfilm Reels in the 21st Century

A brief history on the invention and implementation of microfilm and our acquisition of a new, modern microfilm reader/scanner that enables us to provide digital access to and enhance the quality of SIA’s microfilm collections.

The Archives recently acquired a new microfilm machine/reader!  This is very exciting news for us, and for our patrons, as many of the early records of the Smithsonian were microfilmed decades ago, in an effort to preserve the original documents.  The new microfilm reader is “state of the art” (does anyone still use this phrase?); it permits the user to scan items of interest as a PDF which may then be attached to an email and delivered electronically.  The machine also has numerous features for adjusting contrast and brightness, magnifying text, cropping or zooming in on a specific part of a document, and more.

Image of a machine, a monitor, and computer hardware on a desk.

Perhaps you have never used microfilm or microfiche, and are curious how it became a widely utilized media during the twentieth century. The history and development of microfilm coincides with the history of photography, in particular, the creation of the daguerreotype in 1839. 

John Benjamin Dancer, an English optician, instrument maker, and inventor, began tinkering with daguerreotypes immediately after their introduction in an effort to reduce the original media into a more practical size.  His experiments were successful in reducing an image at a ratio of 160 to 1, creating the first piece of microfilm.  The new process could also be reversed, enlarging an entire or select portion of an image. Although Dancer created the microfilm process, he did not patent it. René Dagron, the French photographer and inventor, was granted the first patent for microfilm in 1859. 

While photography, also a nineteenth century invention, was enthusiastically embraced by the public, microfilm went relatively unnoticed. 

The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 included an entire building to showcase photography; there was but a small display devoted microfilm. It was received by many as a curiosity, a format without a viable purpose requiring special equipment to read or view. 

The Eastman Kodak Company’s Recordak system, a series of automatic, continuous cameras used to capture images on 16mm and 35mm film introduced in the early 1930’s, and the implementation of cellulose acetate film, made the microfilm process more cost effective and less dangerous. Nitrate film, which is unstable and highly flammable, was the medium prior to the introduction of cellulose acetate film. 

With the technology now refined and accessible, Recordak undertook one of the first large-scale projects in 1935—microfilming back issues of The New York Times.

It thus became evident that microfilm was an excellent method of preserving newsprint, which deteriorated rapidly, and consumed a considerable amount of library storage space.  The American Library Association endorsed microfilm as a method of preserving and accessing information during its annual meeting in May 1936.  Soon thereafter, in 1938, Harvard University initiated its Foreign Newspaper Project, and Eugene Power founded University Microfilms, Inc. (UMI) and began microfilming Ph.D. dissertations.

Many libraries/archives, including the Smithsonian, embraced microfilm/microfiche as a space saving measure. A standard archival document box measures approximately .5 cubic feet and will typically hold 500–700 documents, whereas one reel of 35mm microfilm, measuring 4” x 4” x 1.5,” will hold nearly the same volume of paper materials. 

Original microfilm slide of a May 21, 1879 letter from Charles Valentine Riley, Entomologist, offering his services to the Smithsonian, RU 28, Reel 6, Page 2600

Original microfilm slide of a May 21, 1879 letter from Charles Valentine Riley, Entomologist, offering his services to the Smithsonian, RU 28, Reel 6, Page 2600

A “clean” version of the letter was enlarged and straightened, with manual adjustments made to contrast and brightness, using the new microfilm machine.

A “clean” version of the letter was enlarged and straightened, with manual adjustments made to contrast and brightness, using the new microfilm machine.

Original microfilm slide of a January 11, 1882 letter from Secretary Spencer Baird, appointing C.V. Riley as “Honorary Curator of Entomology,” nearly three years later! For the record, Baird did text a reply to Riley in June 1879; however, Riley did not recognize Baird’s number, and deleted the text without reading it! RU112, Volume L6, Reel 6, Page 115

A “clean” version of the letter was enlarged and straightened, with manual adjustments made to contrast and brightness, using the new microfilm machine.

We also microfilmed collections as a level of preservation to limit the circulation of aging, original materials, or to capture documents before the originals deteriorated further.  The majority of early Smithsonian Institution records (ca. 1846 - 1900), including correspondence of Secretaries Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird, Assistant Secretaries’ records, accession/donor records, and museum division records, are available to researchers only on microfilm. 

Digital technologies (cameras, image scanners, storage devices, etc.) have made microfilm/microfiche essentially obsolete.  It is far easier, quicker, and cost effective to digitally scan or photograph materials in-house.  Furthermore, there are high speed scanners that can digitize entire reels of existing microfilm in a matter of minutes.  What, then, is to become of all the microfilm/microfiche currently on the shelves of libraries and archives? 

Fortunately, microfilm is very robust media.  It has a life expectancy of at least 500 years if stored properly, and does not require software updates, an annual subscription, or future costs, other than potential maintenance to the microfilm reader.  Our new machine sits adjacent to a microfilm reader/printer that has been with us since the 1970’s.  Although the old machine looks and is indeed dated, it continues to function well enough, most of the time.  I still use it on occasion for quick searches, simply because it is analog (just like me) and takes only seconds to power up. 

Image of a machine with a large, bulky computer screen.

The new machine, as fly as it is, must be connected to a PC, has to go through its startup procedure, and almost certainly will require a software update at some point.  However, considering the quality of the digital images it produces, numerous options for enhancing the frame(s) of interest, and the accessibility it provides to the hundreds of microfilm reels among our holdings, the new microfilm machine is a much needed and welcomed addition to the archives.  And that makes us excited! Enough to raise our tea cups, and cheer (in our library voices, of course).

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