Tuesday, July 5, 2016

In Praise of Microform

During library tours for new law students, there is usually a brief stop in the Microforms Room on level 1. It's not the most attractive space in the library, with its rows of metal cabinets, but it's a good place to pause the tour for some quick commentary before moving into the more-populated quiet study areas of level 1. Tour leaders sometimes ask if any students have ever used microfilm (reels) or its flat cousin, microfiche (cards) in the past. Usually, only one or two hands are raised in response.

Could you get through three years of law school without ever using microforms? Probably, since so many collections which are commonly found on microformats have been digitized, or have moved to entirely electronic publication formats. Your risk factor increases, though, with membership on a student-edited journal, work as a faculty research assistant, or in-depth research on a historical topic. Some individual journal titles, record and brief collections from certain time periods, and other valuable pieces of research interest remain available only in space-saving microformats.

Earlier this summer, the library's Microforms Room reader/printer machine stopped working after many years of service. A new ScanPro scanner has been installed in the Microforms Room to allow users to read, save digital copies, and/or print from our microfilm and microfiche collections. For assistance with using the new scanner, please see the library service desk staff on level 3.

Want to know more about microformats? Last month, Atlas Obscura published "The Strange History of Microfilm, Which Will Be With Us for Centuries." The fascinating (and illustrated) story traces microfilm's invention in the 19th century to its wide adoption as a preservation option in the 1930s, to its various pros and cons. Those cons, including clunky reading machinery and low-quality source material, have led to some prominent detractors of the format. In 2001, novelist Nicholson Baker published Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, an impassioned critique of libraries' destruction of historical newspapers and books in favor of microformat, which Baker finds to be an inferior substitute.

But microfilm and microfiche are (by design) here to stay, and you may encounter references to "[Microform]" or "[microfiche serial]" in the Duke Libraries Catalog. For help determining whether a particular microform title has been digitized or if you too need to join the ranks of the microform users, be sure to Ask a Librarian.