Friday, December 16, 2011

Microfilm, the 21st Century Way

The MPL Indiana Room has just acquired a digital microfilm scanner.  Now patrons will be able to scan high-resolution images of microfilmed documents, such as old local and county newspapers, magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post (where I once worked), county tax receipts, funeral home records, and other sundry historical documents.  The new gadget is a ScanPro 2000, and it comes to us thanks to a generous Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) grant from the Indiana State Library.

ScanPro 2000 in Action

Too young to remember microfilm reels?  I've got that covered.  You can find pictures of anything on the Internet.

Typical Microfilm Reels

Microfilm consisted of miniaturized positive or negative images of photographed documents, such as newspapers, magazines, books, letters, or other printed matter.  These had to be projected onto a screen to make the readable, and even then they were sometimes illegible using the old-fashioned light-projection microfilm readers.

Old-Fashioned Light-Projection Microfilm Reader

Old microfilm reading machines shone light through the microfilm, projecting the images onto a screen.  The projections were usually sufficiently clear, but there were times when they were fuzzy, too dark, or too light.  That was just the nature of the technology, however.  One could print (black-and-white) screen images on paper, and these were sometimes blurry or, again, too dark or too light.  The machines had focus and dark/light printing controls, and these ordinarily worked moderately well.  Sadly, that was not always the case.  Again, this was no fault of the machine manufacturers or sellers; rather, it was just the limits inherent in technology that was developed, for the most part, half to three-quarters of a century ago.

Modern digital microfilm scanners take high-resolution digitized images that may be computer-enhanced and saved (in a variety of digital formats) to a computer drive, network drive, or portable USB memory device.  The ScanPro 2000 will capture impressively minute details of the microfilmed materials much more clearly than they may be presently printed on paper.  It will revolutionize the Library's historical and genealogical research using this storage medium.

Microfilm may be a soon-to-be century-old information storage technology, but it is still usefully functioning and has the advantages of long-term storage capabilities (longer and more reliable, perhaps, than digital computer files).  So don't discard your microfilms too soon, libraries out yonder.  Our patrons will be enjoying their research value for the foreseeable future.

As for our old microfilm reader, that's a museum piece.  There's value in that, too.

William R. Buckley
MPL Indiana Room Historian & Reference Coordinator

P.S.  My colleague, Cauli Le Chat, MPL feline roving reporter, has her particular viewpoint about the Library's new technological acquisition.  It's worth your time, as she's a lot funnier than I.

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