Microfilm – What you don’t know.

Jefferson Library

Imagine a private detective seated with his back to the door at a low table in the back corner of a forgotten public library.  No one else but the librarian is in the silent building.  A lonely lamp faintly illuminates the huge mound of documents that lays piled on the sturdy oak table. The detective sits huddled in his chair, his eyes pouring over dusty records with an enormous magnifying glass. He peers intently at the script, struggling to decipher the archaic text.  At last, his prolonged look of concentrated focus slides into a crushed frown of despair.  He buries his face in his hands with a moan of defeat.  For a long time he does not move.  Finally he turns out the light and walks away, leaving his mystery unsolved, perhaps forever.  Who knows what he was looking for, buried among a hopeless jumble of unorganized and unreadable records.  If only he had some way to search through them in a systematic way, some way to read the disintegrating text.  If only the library had invested in microfilm.

Microfilm consists of a thin flexible strip of cellulose coated with a photographic emulsion, used to make negatives and transparencies, on which photographs are printed at a greatly reduced size.  In fact, most microfilm is only 3-4% as big as the original document!  Microfilm is primarily used to preserve documents that would otherwise deteriorate and fade.  The photographs are so small that they are not visible to the naked eye; though reading them only requires a quality magnifying glass or a microfilm reader.  In the early days of microphotography, the film was unstable.  It was made out of cellulose acetate.  After long periods of time, the film broke down into acetic acid.  Today the art of microfilming has been perfected into three different branches: silver halide, diazo, and vesicular.

Though some might argue that microfilm only belongs in libraries and storage rooms, it has had a wide variety of uses since its inception.  Microfilm has been used extensively in warfare and in espionage.  It made its first appearance on the battlefield in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.  In the war, microfilm was rolled into capsules which were then attached to carrier pigeons used to transmit messages.  It was also used extensively in the Second World War.  In addition to being the primary method to smuggle photographs of enemy installations, airfields, and classified documents, microfilm was also used by the Americans to cut shipping costs.  By mailing microfilm instead of paper, the U.S. military was able to cut down on tons of space and weight.  Microfilm was ideal for couriers who needed to get through border crossings and other checkpoints, since it is easily concealed in hollow pens, pencils, coins, jacket lining, cars, luggage, and much more.  The Allies of World War Two were so convinced of its utility that when they faced off against each other in the Cold War, both sides employed a new technology called microdots.  Microdots are even smaller than microfilm, so small that they can fit underneath a postage stamp or in a tooth filling.  Microdots were often sent in letters or on postcards.  Miniature cameras were another useful tool of turncoats and spies.  These useful little devices were easily concealable and naturally were used hand-in-hand with the miniature photographs displayed on microfilm and microdots.  During World War Two, resistance groups disguised them as watches, cigarette packs, or matchboxes.

Microfilm is not a new technology.  It has been around for a century and half; yet far from revealing it as outdated technology, Microfilm’s age shows its dependability and usefulness.  Imagine you are again in the public library, but this time the library called Tarheel Imaging.  The company lost no hurry in converting all of the newspapers and records to rolls of microfilm.  Now the files are categorized and organized.  Tarheel Imaging works so efficiently that the average library frequenter might not even have noticed the change.  One day a young reporter walks in.  He goes to the microfilm reader and quickly scans through the documents.  His search ends momentarily and he strolls out. No one even notices him or pays him any attention.  The next week a twenty year old murder case is solved due to startling evidence found in the city’s public records.  You never know what a difference microfilm can make.