The Craft of Microfilm

May 05, 2015

I started researching in archives as an undergraduate. In grad school, I traipsed through the Library of Congress and Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. Then I continued volunteering in archives until I entered library school when I started student level positions in libraries. Not once in that nine year time period did I touch a reel of microfilm.

That has changed now. I’m currently reviewing reels of microfilm from the State Historical Society in Bismarck. Once I finally learned how to thread the microfilm independently, I started sifting through the wealth of North Dakota history present on the reel. Here are some of the items I recently viewed: correspondence related to the Yellowstone-Missouri confluence, information on the creation of Fort Union as a state park, and facts about farm loans. After much searching, I found the items in which we have an interest: documents related to the trial of TR’s boat thieves. These archival documents offer essential background to the legendary story.

I’m not alone in my avoidance of microfilm. I know historians and scholars just starting out in the field who will drive additional distance to use other media, avoiding the film. Using the reels seems like a craft, something similar to developing photos in a dark room. When I’m setting up a roll of microfilm on a reel, I think about old movie theaters and images flickering across a big screen. Once the film is positioned correctly, I get to watch images scroll by on a small screen, one historic snapshot at a time.

Having mastered the microfilm craft, I appreciate its value in new ways, as the most advanced technology of its day. I also understand the importance of converting materials from this format to new media through which current and future scholars will gain access. A drive isn’t always necessary for good archival material.

boat thieves

Pursuing the boat thieves, 1886. From the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Posted by Pamela Pierce on May 05, 2015 in Current Events  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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