Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Fine Art Of Microfilming

Part 10 of The Library Chronicles
Boy am I getting good or what. I'm doing about a one month gap in between library posts. Oh well, better late than never I always say.

Warning: Don't read this if you're in your humble abode and it's a gloriously sunny day outside where you live. For goodness sake, go outside and do something else. I'll understand if you save this for later. Most importantly, don't read this unless you're full of energy. Anything less than 100% efficiency will spell sleepy time for you.

The other sixty-seven percent of my job dealt with most aspects of microfilm. While I didn't do the grunt work of programming (would rather listen to Uncle Bill talk about the definition "is"), I did do a lot of the other peripheral stuff associated with final product.

Such as taking proper measurements. The size of the newspaper was an essential component of programming. A difference of no less than one inch meant that instead fitting what we needed on say, four rolls of film, we would use say six rolls of film instead. More film usually equates with more money. And when you're dealing with a contract that spelled out a finite dollar amount, you squeezed every single penny until it literally cried out in pain.

Another essential component that was directly related to size, was the size of a normal print size e. Measurements were taken with a tiny magnifying glass called a "loop", and they had to be exact. If you said it was one size, and it wound up being smaller, you ran the real risk of having the text come out blurry. Blurry text equals retakes, which equals wasting money. So the size of the e was very important. The best example I can show you is this:

Can you read this clearly? This is what most of the newspaper text looks like on microfilm.

After getting the proper measurements, the next vital component was the page count. The length of the newspaper determined how many reels of microfilm you needed to program. If the newspaper was a weekly from the late 1800's that averaged eight pages of text, chances are that you would be able to program about two years worth of newspapers per reel (that's about 104 issues). However, if the paper was a daily from say, the early 1900's, the page count was on the average about twenty-four pages. Therefore, you would be able to program about one to two months per reel.

Once the programming was done and the paper shipped off to the microfilming company, then I got to work creating programming sheets for the film. Basically, I got to loathe using the mail merge function in Word (also got to loathe using Excel as well). I found it was an absolute thrill in taking a 100 page document and reducing it down to 80 pages.


Anyways, these programming sheets were used to take copious notes while I was inspecting the microfilm. Never, repeat, never inspect microfilm if you're even the tiniest bit sleepy. Anyways, I would look for the following items while inspecting the film:

Scratches; flakes; folded pages; blurred text; pages out of sequence; incorrect programming information; film too light; film too dark; fingers (don't ask). Plus whatever else looked out of the ordinary.

If I found none of these items, or if I found them on parts that were deemed inconsequential, then that particular roll of film passed inspection. On a good day, I would pass at least two dozen rolls of film. Bad day would be less than ten.

This my friends, is what I did for a living from 1996-2001.
Up next: The many wonderful and interesting things I learned about history while working with newspapers.


  1. Well it's amazing how much detail work goes into a finished product, viewed by thousands of people who are unaware of the efforts. Sounds like you had it down to a science!

  2. I'm glad there's someone to do this work. I've used the service quite a bit myself.

  3. Joanne: A phenominal amount of work went into the finished product. It did help that for about 98% of the filming, we used a very fine company called New England Micrographics, based out of Marlborough MA.

    It was safe to say that on my end, I was on auto-pilot by the time I finished up the pieces of my work with this. I got to be so good at it, that even after I transfered to another dept, my brain was still picked from time to time on it.

    Charles: Microfilm is really the way to go. I know there's a big movement towards digitization, but really in the end, this is the best way of doing it.

  4. Sorry I would have read the entire post but someone sent me outside. ha ha

  5. It actually hurt my eys a bit when you went to that small type to show what it would be like to read microfilm.

    Couldn't do it! Not now and probalby not then ('96 to '01, that is.)

    hats off to the microfilm guys!! And girls.

  6. It does have a tendency to give one some serious eye strain.

    Ever wonder way some lawyers wear glasses?

    A lot of the case books that they are required to read have print that is about half that size.


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