October 12, 2007

Microfilm Primer: Close Calls and Tragedies in Microfilm Publishing

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In the course of sniffing out new collections for publication at Primary Source Microfilm, I stumbled across a record in Columbia University’s online public access catalog describing its Federated Press collection. I had no idea what this collection represented, although its size at roughly 250 rolls made it an attractive prospect. A little research revealed that the Federated Press had been a relatively short-lived wire service for labor-friendly publications during the heyday of the 20th-century labor movement. (It boasted Betty Friedan as one of its early journalists.) The collection comprised news releases organized by chronology and subject and biographies. When I asked Columbia staff about the collection, imagine my dismay when I learned that they had no real idea where the master negative was located . Since the master negative is critical to any high-quality reproduction of the set for prospective customers, I faced the grim prospect of working from the heavily scratched microfilm positive that sat in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Not good. Only after several weeks of searching did Columbia’s library staff discover the presence of the master negative at Preservation Resources, which had stored it, in turn, at one of Iron Mountain’s many facilities. In the end this little known and not much used collection was successfully published, resulting in a revamped catalog, a new print negative placed in Primary Source Microfilm’s cold vault, another negative and positive delivered for safekeeping this time to Columbia University for local storage, and, of course, the distribution of a number of positive copies among major research libraries with strong programs in labor history throughout the United States. Close call that one!

Sadly, not all stories turn out so well. Roughly around that same period I discovered another collection, this time a gathering of manuscripts, serial publications, and monographs—many quite rare—from and about the Yucatan region of Mexico. Based on a bibliography I discovered, I began to root around for its location. I started at the University of Alabama, which owned an old and heavily worn positive set of the over 140 rolls that comprised this 35-millimeter microfilm collection. With the assistance of the bibliography’s editor, Edward Terry, who still taught at the university, I learned that a master negative resided in the Yucatan, little attended to by its owners. There was much to concern me. The Yucatan is notorious for its humidity, and during my visit, the region had just weathered a devastating hurricane that tore up much of the countryside and damaged parts of Merida where the film set resided. The microfilm itself was stored in a dilapidated building with no means of controlling the temperature or the humidity. And need I add that the microfilm itself was acetate stock?

After laborious negotiation, we brought the negative to the United States and began the difficult process of creating second-generation print negative on silver halide polyester microfilm in order to give the this collection of some very rare material a fighting chance of survival. Fortunately, the microfilm had somehow managed to survive without suffering the baleful effects of vinegar syndrome. This was good. But, lo and behold, as we worked our way frame-by-frame through the film, we were shocked to discover a host of imaging problems that, despite our best efforts, we could not salvage. The microfilm, which had been shot in the Yucatan, featured among other things the thumbs of the operator holding down book pages, indicating the absence of a glass plate. Moreover, there had been no effort to control the lighting. As a consequence density readings varied widely—sometimes from one photographic frame to the next—with dark images sidling up next to overexposed shots. Finally, pages started showing up on a regular basis that were out of focus. This final blemish was the straw that broke the back of this product. Primary Source Microfilm, in good faith, could not distribute the product. And even worse, the original library of materials has been dismantled some years after the creation of the microfilm, making any prospect of reshooting the collection impossible. The money that the University of Alabama had spent so many years ago to create this microfilm set was all for nought.

Although there is no guarantee of the fact, had the microfilming been performed under the auspices of a publisher, which must always look over its shoulder at the customer’s reception, many of these problems might never have happened. In the end, despite the painful decision not to redistribute the collection because of its many flaws, Primary Source Microfilm nobly--and at my urging--created gratis negative and positive copies on polyester stock of the entire microfilm set for both the Instituto de Lengua y Cultura de Yucatán and the University of Alabama respectively, to prevent further deterioration of the acetate originals.

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