Microfilm will exist for half a millennium

Original author: Craig Saper
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Millions of publications, not to mention spyware documents, can be read on microfilm. But people still consider these devices obsolete and unattractive.

Recently, I purchased a decommissioned microfilm machine. My university bought this device for $ 16,000 in 1998, but since then its cost has been amortized by accounting to $ 0. Such devices played a central role both in research and in the work of secret agents of the past century.

Our bureaucrats did not allow me to put this device in the laboratory, which also has a multimillion information system. I was forced to promise them that "our leaders will never see him there." After drawing up a large number of documents and approvals, I was finally able to remove the device myself. Unlike the computer — even the old one — it was heavy and awkward. This device would not fit in a passenger car, and it could not be moved two people further than a couple of meters. Even just moving the device was a problem. No one needed this device, but no one wanted me to have it.

And nevertheless, micrographic devices are still widely used. For several centuries, these devices will be in demand and still new models are produced. And, unfortunately, in this fact there is no intrigue, because micrographic apparatuses simply continue to be necessary for creating archival materials and reading them.

The first micrographic experiments in 1839 made it possible to reduce the daguerreotype by a factor of 160. By 1853, this format was already considered as a way to create newspaper archives. Technology continued to improve during the nineteenth century. However, the microfilm was still considered a novelty when it was shown at the Hundred Years Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.


A modern microfilm reader comes from several grandparents. On March 28, 1922, Bradley A. Fiske filed a patent for a handheld handheld microfilm reader that needed to be held at one eye in order to see the enlarged columns of tiny text on a roll of paper tape. But the device, which has gained real popularity, was the 35-mm scanning cameraG. L. McCarthy, which Eastman Kodak introduced as Rekordak in 1935, in particular, for archiving newspapers. By 1938, universities began using Rekordak to preserve dissertations and other scientific works on microfilm. During World War II, micrographs became the tools of espionage and the transportation of military correspondence, and it soon became known that huge archives of information and cross-references were useful for institutions using them.


By 1940, libraries began using microfilms, realizing that they could not physically place an increasing amount of publications in their stores, including newspapers, periodicals, and government documents. With the end of the war in Europe, in order to better understand the rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the world, coordinated by the efforts of the Library of Congress and the US State Department, many international newspapers were transferred to microfilm. The collection and cataloging of vast amounts of information in the form of microfilm from around the world in one centralized location led to the idea of ​​creating a central intelligence agency (CIA) in 1947.


These devices were not just spies and "archivers". In 1931, enraptured by the changing future of reading, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, F. W. Marinetti, and another 40 avant-garde writers, conducted an experiment with a reading apparatus, invented by Bob Brown , in which a ribbon with miniature text scrolled behind a magnifying glass with the speed set by the reader. Specially crafted texts, called “readies,” create something between an artistic installation and a pragmatic solution for libraries that need more shelf space and more advanced book distribution systems. Over the past decade, I have reworked “readies“ for 21st-century devices for reading books like smartphones, tablets and computers.


By 1943, only the National Archives of the United States had 400,000 pages microfilmed and the originals destroyed. Millions of pages around the world in order to protect the contents from the destructive effects of war were reproduced on microfilms and then destroyed. In the 1960s, the US government offered microfilm documents to libraries and researchers for sale, especially newspapers and periodicals; by the end of the decade, copies of almost 100,000 coils were available (about 700 pages on each coil of microfilm).


Another issue was the longevity of microfilm. Already on May 17, 1964, the New York Times reportedabout signs of degradation - “microfilm rash” that appeared on the surface of the microfilm, consisted of “small stains painted in red, orange or yellow”. Anonymously, one of the producers of microfilm films told the newspaper that "he did not find any traces of the" rash "on the film of his own production, but he saw it on the film of other producers, and they reported the same about our film." Acetate in the film decomposed after decades of use and inadequate storage, and this decomposition was accompanied by the smell of vinegar — librarians and researchers sometimes joked about salad prepared in periodical reading rooms. This problem was solved by the early 1990s, when Kodak introduced a polyester-based microfilm, the safety of which is promised for at least 500 years.

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The microfilm competitor appeared when National Cash Register (NCR), now known as a pioneer in the use of magnetic tape and electronic storage devices in the late 1950s and early 60s, launched the microfisher Karl O. Carlson in 1961. This storage system contained more than 100 grid pages on a single 4 × 6 ”sheet of film. Since microfiche appeared on the market much later than microfilm, they played a minor role in state archives and in newspaper archiving; they were more widely used in the emerging computer storage systems. In the end, the electronic archives almost completely replaced the microfiche, but their cousin microfilm continued to play a special role.

The decline in microfilm popularity has intensified with the development of optical character recognition technology (OCR). In the 1930s, Emanuel Goldberg developed a system that was originally used to search for microfilms and could read characters on tape and translate them into a telegraph code. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the team led by Vannevar Bush designed Microfilm Rapid Selector to quickly find information on microfilm. Ray Kurzweil further improved OCR, and by the end of the 1970s he created a computer program, later bought by Xerox, which was borrowed from LexisNexis, which sells software for electronic storage and retrieval of legal documents.

By the 1980s and the 90s, OCR was quickly replacing microfilm as a search engine and search results for business and legal documents, but in parallel to reducing this role, microfilm began to appear periodically in horror films and detective films, which can be seen in the video collection. Ryan Creed on YouTube Hot Chicks Looking at Microfilm in Horror Movies. The microfilm has become part of an old-fashioned joke about finding dark, obscene secrets.

Machines with microfilm taught people's eyes to read differently: blurring fast-moving images replaced page turning - the forerunner of the transition from reading books to surfing the Internet. As soon as we got used to non-linear text reading devices, we wanted to jump, rather than flipping page after page. When Adobe introduced the Portable Document Format (PDF) in the late 1990s, allowing scanned documents of facsimile quality to be available in electronic and, later, searchable OCR formats, microfilm lost even more popularity as a storage and retrieval system. .


Modern digital search allows the reader to go directly to the desired page and text, eliminating one of the shortcomings of microfilm. But there is a downside: digital documents usually omit the context in which they are located. When a particular article can be obtained directly, its surrounding pages in the morning paper or the rest of the magazine or weekly disappear. This context includes something more than just a random "meeting" with the next news. The context also includes the advertisement, the position and size of one message in relation to others, and even the overall design of the page at the time of its publication. A digital search may give what you are looking for (and may not give it!), But a digital search may hide the historical context of this material.


Digital search also turns search activity into data that someone else can observe, compare, quantify and visualize. The user's own thinking becomes the object of search and data source, and not only those documents that the user hopes to find. None of this happens when using micrographic devices. The library can record what materials the user takes or returns, but the micrographic apparatus itself cannot track what someone is reading when using this apparatus. It is not connected to search engines. No single entity, corporate or government, uses algorithms to analyze the habits and preferences of microfilm readers. The micrographic apparatus does not “read” you, your emotions, or your political or consumer preferences.

Recently, when it became known about the extent of data collection and analysis on the Internet, people began to better understand the spy function of online services. Classic espionage has also become more prominent, as cyber attacks affect corporations, infrastructure, and even elections. But no one considers microfilm a viable alternative. Despite their past spy craft, people are not even fascinated by microfilm as an object of retro nostalgia. He does not have a hipster cult, for example, like a typewriter or a printing press or a radiola ; no one makes earrings from the keys or pens of micrographic apparatus.


There is a reason for this: these keys and knobs are still in use. Micrographic apparatuses are not yet disassembled to extract their parts, and they are not really outdated. Devices are still widely used, and their mechanical simplicity can help them extend their life longer than any modern electronic technology exists. As xkcd once commented on web comics, microfilm is more stable than web sites that often disappear , or CDs for which most modern computers do not have drives.


The xkcd comic causes laughter, because it seems absurd to suggest using microfilm as the most reliable way to store archives, although indeed microfilm will ensure safety for 500 years. Such strong persistence remains the main argument for the use of microfilm in scientific libraries and archives. And since modern advanced technologies very quickly become obsolete, the old (and imperceptible) technologies, such as micrographic apparatuses, will not disappear. They will remain, unswervingly doing the same work as in the past century, for at least another five centuries - provided that the libraries that store them remain open, and people who read and interpret the contents of microfilms will survive.

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