The National Archives: A Pioneer in Microfilm Online Exhibit

Today’s post comes from Emily Niekrasz, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

Photograph of Microfilm Camera at the National Archives, January 15, 1937. (National Archives Identifier 12168566)

Photograph of Microfilm Camera at the National Archives, January 15, 1937. (National Archives Identifier 12168566)

Since 1936, the National Archives has microfilmed documents in order to preserve frequently used originals and to allow researchers to study materials without making a potentially long and expensive trip to Washington, DC.

The National Archives History Office has created a new exhibit about the National Archives’ leadership in the effort to promote the use of microfilm to preserve valuable original documents.

At the outbreak of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for an increase in the use of microfilm to protect the United States’ most treasured documents from the dangers of war.

Similarly, Vernon D. Tate, Chief of the Division of Photographic Reproduction and Research for the National Archives, argued that microfilm was “in importance with any military weapon thus far disclosed.”

As a result of this encouragement, the National Archives microfilmed hundreds of thousands of documents by the end of World War II.

Photograph of Microfilm, Veterans’ Bureau Index, January 20, 1939. (National Archives Identifier 12168672)

Since 1945, the National Archives encouraged other archives both within the United States and abroad to use microfilm for research and preservation.

For instance, in 1966, the Extraordinary Congress of the International Council on Archives (ICA) was held in Washington, DC, where microfilm was discussed on an international stage.

There, Morris Rieger, an archivist at the National Archives suggested that the ICA should create what would become the Microphotography Committee. In a survey, the committee concluded that out of 56 countries, all but 10 were prepared to microfilm documents.

As other nations were just beginning to microfilm, the National Archives had already made great strides toward preservation with this process in the previous 30 years.

Then, as a result of the popularity of the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots, a new wave of researchers swept through the Archives. Roots explored the story of Kunta Kinte, author Alex Haley’s ancestor who had been sold into slavery. America watched as Haley traced his familial roots.

The opening of new Microfilm Reading Room at the National Archives, June 24, 1971. (National Archives Identifier23856415)

The opening of new Microfilm Reading Room at the National Archives, June 24, 1971. (National Archives Identifier 23856415)

Soon, new researchers came to the National Archives to study their own family’s genealogy. For the first time, there were lines to use microfilm readers.

While researchers continued to take advantage of available microfilm, by the late 1990s, only a minuscule fraction of the National Archives’ holdings had been microfilmed. As a result, large-scale digitization projects have been established, and today the National Archives is digitizing more and more of its holdings.

The National Archives holds over 4,000 microfilm publications, which are available in Washington, DC, or by ordering copies online.

To learn more about the National Archives’ leading role in microfilm, explore the new online exhibit The National Archives: A Pioneer in Microfilm in Google Cultural Institute.

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