Monday, January 15, 2007

a primary source for historical research

This post is about time I've been spending lately staring intently at enlarged images of text captured on 35mm roll microfilm.

But first a little history.

In the late 60's, during my graduate school days, the world turned upside down. As now, young people opposed a war being waged by two-faced civilian leaders in which precious lives were squandered, but, unlike now, young men then faced the likelihood of being drafted forcefully into that dreadful carnage. Before that time, I'd had dozens of vague plans involving an orderly transition from home, to college, to graduate school, to some type of satisfying career. The war policies of the Johnson/Nixon presidencies ripped apart that day dream. I hung on to an increasingly precarious deferment through two years of Master's work and two years' poverty work as a Volunteer in Service to America. A huge burden lifted on my reaching the milestone age at which my government considered me too old to be compelled to fight. I tried to piece back together the old, uncertain career-plan, and, much more though luck and the generosity of a friend than any thought-out intention of my own, I stumbled into some part-time work for a small business that specialized in publishing reprints for the academic library market. It was a good connection, profitable on both sides. While still a part-time employee, I worked on and then initiated some interesting reprints and eventually evolved into a full-time executive type with responsibility for original monographs and lots of research collections of microforms (the links I've given here show how some of the projects I worked on have evolved over the decades since then). I did some writing as well as research, product development, editing, marketing, and the like, including an introduction to a reprinted newspaper which you can find on this bibliography (scroll way down).

But the money then was mostly in the microform sets and publishing them, more or less consequently, became my primary responsibility. It's difficult to recall the importance of micropublishing, so much has the digital revolution changed academic research since those years. But microforms haven't gone away. The other day I was surprised to read: "After the receipt of 96,039 items in 2006, the Microform Reading Room custodial collections [at the library where I work] contained approximately 7,878,169 items at the end of 2006." So maybe it shouldn't also have been a surprise to find -- now that I've begun research on as aspect of the mathematical revolution in Isaac Newton's time - how very many of my sources are available not on the web, not in bound and printed collections, but rather on 35mm roll film.

Microforms have never had a good reputation with the people that have had to use them. The medium itself has drawbacks and so does the equipment that's required for accessing it {"user resistance" has always been a problem, as this pdf document explains}. I guess they're still in the category of "necessary unpleasantness, avoided if possible" but, oddly, I found myself enjoying my time before the machine last week. I liked having these 17th-century publications available to me, liked being able to photocopy pages, even liked figuring out how to use the equipment and dealing with the custodial staff who repeatedly accepted my handwritten request forms and delivered up the reels exactly one half hour later.

Some addenda:

Here's a comic from Grinnell College that lampoons the "user resistance" experience in microform reading rooms: Johnny Cavalier; Microfilm Man,

Here's press release on a project I worked on: Recon Project for Preservation Microfilm Masters Completed.

Here's Wikipedia's take on Microform.

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