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As a historian, microfilm is the single greatest invention in human history. You haven’t lived until reading five decades of a union newspaper on microfilm. You should learn more about its history.

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  • advocatethis

    I used to get nauseous flipping through microfilm, but when I was in college there was no other practical way to quickly go through large numbers of old periodicals. Even more recently, when I was trying to do some research on indoor baseball in the 20s, microfilm was the only option.

    • semiotix

      I used to get nauseous flipping through microfilm

      Oh, my God, yes. The struggle is real.

      I’ve never felt so crappy in my life (without anything actually being wrong with me) as when I had to use microfilm readers for hours on end in grad school.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Whatever its drawbacks microfilm sure beats microfiche.

        PS– OMG I’m surprised my speech to text writer recognized the word microfiche. They must have programmed it using a dictionary from 1962.

        • DAS

          One of the drawbacks to microfiche being the way elementary school librarians insisted you pronounce it microFEEEESH, presumably because they were tired of kids referring to microfish (which, my autocorrect corrected to microfiche)

  • Plus, microfilm will survive the coming zombie apocalypse. The ‘cloud’ will not.

    • sparks

      That’s one thing that well-stored film does which electronic media hasn’t yet. A black and white microfilm record can last a century or more. Even so, the Nicholson Baker in me says an original should be stored somewhere in the country for reference.

      • Right–the idea that we don’t need hard copies of things because the internet will store everything is really, really short-sighted view of history. And a very dangerous one.

        • ThrottleJockey

          It depends on the object that needs to be memorialized. But if your backup and Recovery is planned for you should be able to survive multiple catastrophes. I’d guess three dimensional objects are the hardest to store digitally.

        • Brett

          I worry about that. What if historians several centuries down the line have mountains of statistical and scientific data (because that stuff gets migrated from database to database), but very little personal/anecdotal accounts from large stretches of the 21st century onward because it was all happening on cloud-service social media that simply disappeared when the companies went out of business/shut down/were sold?

          • sparks

            I’m sure it’s happened to families who take digital pictures/videos of their loved ones, never print them, and then lose those images which were stored on memory cards. I’ve heard “do you think I can get (pictures/video) off this card? I accidentally washed it with my clothes.” too many times to count.

        • N__B

          the idea that we don’t need hard copies of things because the internet will store everything is really, really short-sighted view of history

          No problem. We simply back up everything on the internet by printing out copies, binding individual documents and storing the resultant codices in a secured building.

          • The Temporary Name

            Codices? Can’t we figure out some shorter word for that?

          • Linnaeus

            Hmm. Where have I heard of this practice before?

        • Turkle

          Piketty was very, very good on this point in Capital in the 21st Century.

        • ThusBloggedAnderson

          is any contemporary shit even being recorded on microfilm?

          future historians may know a great deal about 1930-90 & not much else

    • cleek

      as long as they’re kept in a climate-controlled environment, that is.

  • Jeff R.

    I did a history project in college that required me to go through WWI era newspapers on microfilm. As a engineering major, it did give me great insight in how historians work. It also made me more certain that engineering was the correct career path.

    The other thing that microfilm is good for and the internet isn’t: stock prices for defunct corporations. About four years ago, I needed to establish the cost basis of some for some stock that had gone through so many mergers that the original corporations no longer existed. You can find historical prices for some stocks, but only if the corporation is still around. Other than that, you have to do what I did; go to the library and check out the microfilms.

    • JR in WV

      When I was in jr high and high school, I wouod walk over to where my folks worked after school and wait to get a ride home at supper time.

      I had free range into cases of microfilm of local newspapers back to the 19-teens. So I would read 70 year old news. It was bloody too, people talking about crime today, train robberies, working men using a case of dynamite to blow up the house, wife and kids. Bank robberies, payroll robberies, every kind of crime.

      When I was in college the second time I did an oral history of the New River coal fields with two little old ladies, sweet, well groomed, well spoken. They were taught to carry (and shoot well) a pistol not long after they learned to walk. They would hang the holster and gun on the bed frame when they went to bed. “That’s how proper families raised their young women!”

      Which I guess is why my Grandma taught me to shoot when I was 10 or 11, and taught my wife about the second day she knew her. Long before the wedding!

      Reading the microfilm, seeing all the crime stories, no wonder why!

  • Thom

    I have luckily not had to use microfilm much at all (though reading faded, handwritten 19th century documents is also challenging). But I did look at some campus newspapers a few years ago in the UC Berkely library, where they had machines that made PDFs of the page one was looking at. This was a miracle. How common is it?

    • Dumbspear OSparrow

      Be careful about all the autobiographical information you’ve been dropping. Some of your acquaintances, chiefly old denizens of the PAR, might have been able to ascertain your identity generations ago.

    • E.Garth

      That functionality is standard in any large library these days. If whoever makes policy decisions for the library is paranoid about copyright the computer attached to the microfilm reader will not be networked and you’ll need to have a flash drive with you.

  • rea

    As a historian, microfilm is the single greatest invention in human history

    Not to get all grammar Nazi on you, but I was not aware that microfilm was an historian

    • Thom

      I’m not a fan of this construction, but the meaning is perfectly clear and it is common in published work.

  • Jim in Baltimore

    As a librarian, microfilm is a curse upon the Earth, and microfiche only escapes that by saving space.

    • Why?

      • Jim in Baltimore

        The expense of the machinery required, which leads to most microfilm readers (the machines, that is) being old, worn out, and not soon to be replaced.
        That, and the whirring sound gets to me, but that’s just personal.

        • ThrottleJockey

          I can’t believe you prefer microfiche to microfilm. I love the latter and hate the former. Part of this may be my introduction to microfilm. My first time seeing it was as a third grader watching Amityville Horror when the main character researches his recently purchased house. For whatever reason I thought it was cool. When I was a senior in high school I spent several weekends buried in my city library pulling up reams of microfilm for a final paper on WW2. Back then my city library stored there Playboys behind the reference counter too :-D

        • ThusBloggedAnderson

          the WHHIIIIIRRRRRRRRR of the microfilm at Warp 9 is indisputably awesome. as is the warm smell of the heat generated thereby.

    • Halloween Jack

      Ut, beat me to it. The worst are the genealogists, who bitch endlessly about balky machines and missing reels, when it’s almost certainly them or one of their fellow genealogists who are responsible for the damage and missing reels.

      • “The worst are the genealogists”

        You need go no further, no matter the topic.

  • cleek

    Azimov says that microfilm will be the primary means of archiving data, 50,000 years from now.

    • sparks

      Considering that one of my disks of The Complete New Yorker is unreadable already, I believe microfilm might last hundreds or thousands, though 50,000 is a stretch.

      • Considering that one of my disks of The Complete New Yorker is unreadable already

        Just trying to catch up with the print edition, much of which is unreadable on arrival these days.

      • Jeff R.

        Do you mean the media is degraded and can’t be read, or you don’t have hardware/software that can read it? I know that complete NatGeo from the late 90’s can’t be read on a modern Mac and I’m not sure Windows 7 can read it. Even if a cdrom lasted hundreds of years, you’d need to recreate the hardware necessary to read them and then write software to decode what you’ve read. I say stick with clay tablets. They may take up lots of room but they’ll last thousands of years.

  • Woodrowfan

    one drawback to microfilm is that it does not preserve color. For newspapers that’s not a problem for the most part, unless you’re interested in the old comics. When libraries and archives microfilmed their newspapers back in the day they tossed out the original newspapers. So along with the stock reports, weather forecasts, stories about current news, sports scores, etc also went Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland, and Krazy Kat, the Yellow Kid, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, etc, etc. Some of them have been preserved, especially many of the more popular ones, but many more were lost.

    • Jeff R.

      When the early editions of the “Complete Peanuts” was being published, they did have to go to the microfilm to find some of the strips. They weren’t printing the Sundays in color, so the color loss wasn’t an issue (although they are doing Sunday color edition now). For one Sunday strip, they couldn’t find the throwaway panel and had to reconstruct it. A couple of years later, it did turn up and they included it in a later edition.

  • DrDick

    I spent 3 months, 8 hours a day, reading 80 years of handwritten government correspondence for my dissertation. A marvelous resource, but not much fun.

    • Linnaeus

      My primary sources were mostly microfilmed fur trade documents and naturalists’ journals. Some of those guys had very, very bad handwriting.

      • DrDick

        Most employees of the Office of Indian Affairs (which are the records I am referencing here) suffered from the same affliction. There was one agent, blessedly there for only a couple of years, whose handwriting I never could decipher and was forced to rely on the published reports in the Congressional records for that period.

  • Hawerchuk

    I have had two reasons to truly go to microfiche in my life:

    1) Confirm that a hockey player on a college club hockey team was ineligible because he had previously played pro hockey (Toledo Blade 1996, which wasn’t yet available on the internet)

    2) Find the original NY Daily News photo from 1973 that I found in a bar showing a basketball player going up for a rebound with his penis hanging out of his shorts. Alas, that was in the morning edition, and the microfiche only had the evening edition with a different photo.

  • mikeSchilling

    microfilm is the single greatest invention in human history.

    After Saran Wrap.

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