The ubiquitous microfilm reel: National Archives facilities nationwide are chock full of 'em!
Where did they all come from? Well, here's the story:
Our infant agency immediately saw the possibilities for this technology. A division for photographic
reproduction of records was one of the first priorities when the National Archives was established,
and microfilming was going to be a big part of its job from the get-go.
NAID 7582964, file "1936"
Copying of issues of The Washington Post with microfilm camera,
Division of Photographic Archives and Research, 1937
Dr. Vernon D. Tate was appointed Chief of the Division of Photographic Archives and Research.
In addition to his duties at the Archives, he traveled widely, evangelizing on the benefits of microphotography:
reducing storage for bulky paper documents and promoting wider use of the records via their conveniently
Dr. Vernon D. Tate, 1946
The work of the division was featured in an article in the July 1938 issue of the new magazine Popular Photography:
NAID 7582964, file "1938"
At the Archives, staff were making use of microfilm copies in their work. In this 1940 photo,
Mary Vance Wilson of the Division of Research and Publications is copying information from a reel.
As World War II descended, the military services were establishing and expanding their microfilming programs.
Perhaps the best-known of these was V-Mail.
111-SC-164865, from NAID 530707
During the war, Dr. Tate transferred to the Department of the Navy to help get its microphotography program
off the ways.
Workers examining microfilm for defects in the Navy's Microphotographic Section.
John E. Lown, assistant chief of the section (in bow tie), looks on. 1942
Meanwhile, the National Archives had established the File Microcopy program in 1940, by which select records
of high research value would be microfilmed and sold to institutions and the public. This transformed into the
Microfilm Publications program in the early 1950s, which continues to the present day.
Here is an illustration of just how much space could be saved with microfilming. All of the oversize glass negatives
pictured here were copied onto the reel that Ms. Cahoon is holding:
Fannie Cahoon with Microfilm in Photo Lab, 1963
But as great as microfilm is, it still has its problems.
Raise your hand if you've ever said "I can't read it; it's too faded!"
NAID 7788317, file "General Reference"
And don't you love it when some nincompoop has wound the reel backwards? Grrr....
And it deteriorates.
But now there is stable polyester base film that will last decades, if not longer. And just in time to digitize it!
But wait, are you up for going microfiche-ing, too?
Yeah, me neither.
Here is information on how to Request and Order Reproductions. from the National Archives.