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Reeling In the Years at the State Library

image taken from an old reel of microfilm side-by-side with image taken from a replacement reel

Here at the State Library our staff and users still heavily rely on this crazy little technology called “microfilm.”  It is what people used for high-density information storage before the age of computers, and digitizing it all is still going to take some time.  The library keeps all of the Washington Newspapers on microfilm and many other interesting documents, such as the Territorial Newspapers Card Index [see catalog record online], which is shown above, or even more enticing, the Special report No. 14 of Project Blue Book: Analysis of Reports of Unidentified Aerial Objects, 1955 [see catalog record online].

One of the best things about microfilm is that if there are long-term power outages, you can always hold them to the light and pull out a magnifying glass to read the data.  Try to do that, memory stick!  One of the downsides is that they are so well loved they begin to wear out, and we occasionally need to have new film made from the masters.  Just look at the above example to see how bad they can get. The old film stock starts to yellow, the image gets scratchy from hours of running through high speed readers, and…is that tape holding the two ends together?  Yikes!

Luckily, the fine folks at the State Archives keep master copies of the state’s newspapers on microfilm and Northwest Collection on microfilm, and our crackerjack acquisitions team can order new ones from them as the budget allows, ensuring that Washington State researchers will continue to have access to these fine resources for decades to come.  You can also purchase copies of microfilm held by the Washington State Library.  Find out more by clicking here.

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2 Responses to “Reeling In the Years at the State Library”

  1. Very interesting, I wonder how long it takes for these films to degrade? – James Wendel

  2. Hi James,

    The short answer is about 500 years for Silver Halide (silver crystal suspended in gelatin on polyester) film and maybe 50 years for Diazo (diazonium salts and dye on plastic) film, if stored and used properly. The long answer is very detailed and if you are interested the Image Permanence Institute is very a good resource to consult. Find them online at https://www.imagepermanenceinstitute.org/ Another fine resource is the Training in Preservation Microfilming series, available in PDF modules from the National Library of Australia, http://www.nla.gov.au/preserve/trainmat.html

    Glad you liked the article!

    Sean Lanksbury
    Northwest and Special
    Collections Librarian

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