It was not until the 1930s that major efforts to reformat brittle books and documents began in earnest. Although experimentation with microphotography had begun as early as 1839, and was patented in 1859, it was not until the 1920s that it was treated as anything other than a novelty, when it was expended for use in keeping copies of bank records. (University of California) The 1930s saw a rapid expansion of microphotography into preservation efforts.
With a perfected 35mm microfilm camera, Recordak in 1935 expanded and began filming and publishing the New York Times in microfilm. Two significant events in 1938 hastened the use of microforms for archival preservation in American libraries and institutions. Because of rapid deterioration of the newsprint original and the numerous difficulties in storage and use of newspapers, Harvard University Library began its Foreign Newspaper Project. Today this project continues and the microform masters are stored at the Center for Research Studies in Chicago. This same year also saw the founding of University Microfilms, Inc. (‘UMI’) by Eugene Power. He had previously microfilmed foreign and rare books, but in 1938 his work became a commercial enterprise as he expanded into microfilming doctoral dissertations. (University of California)
Microfilm came to be seen as somewhat of a godsend in the library community.
“Microfilm in addition to its importance in replication of worn-out materials reduces the need to handle materials that are important as objects. It saves space and is the only sensible method at this time to maintain newspaper collections … Microfilming makes storage, retrieval, and speedy dissemination of great quantities of records possible with efficiency and economy. It is probably the best answer for brittle books and newspaper collections.” (Cunha & Cunha, pp. 71-72)
“According to the preservation plan for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), for instance, ‘about 75 percent of the documents have no intrinsic value – that is, they need not be retained in their original form to preserve the information.’” (quoted in Gertz 1992, pp. 163-164)
But there was a downside to microfilming as well. It needs special storage conditions in order to survive as long as its proponents state.
“The finest microfilming available is wasted if the finished product … is not kept in a carefully controlled … environment. That requires stable temperature and relative humidity (65[degrees]F and 40%RH) day and night year-round; with filtered air and in constant darkness. All of the care expended in preparation, filming, processing, and quality control is for nought if the storage of the finished film is neglected.” (Cunha & Cunha 1983, p. 72)
In many cases, poor storage conditions led to deterioration of the film stock onto which many items had been microfilmed.
“Microfilm, coming along as it did in the 1930s, soon took its central place as the penicillin of the library world. Suddenly, diseased materials could be photographed and renewed in sterile, compact, and pristine form, while the sick old husks were discarded. Here was a permanent cure, which, while not inexpensive, could be manufactured in great quantity and made available all over the country …
But as with penicillin, the wonder cure was not always properly administered, some people were allergic to it, and over time it was found to be in some ways less potent than had first been assumed.” (Gundersheimer, 2002, p. 23)
Gundersheimer points to the microfilm held at his own library, the Folger Shakespeare Library: “In 1994 we suspected that there might be problems with the older acetate film … some parts … were clearly affected by what has come to be known as ‘vinegar syndrome.’” (Gundersheimer 2002, p .24)
Critics, most notably the author Nicholson Baker, have been harsh in their critique of librarians’ reliance on microfilm, particularly in the case of newspapers, which were often cut up and discarded in the process of microfilming them.
“The notion that printing work of the highest level of technical sophistication, produced in four and five colors in multimillion-dollar plants tended by teams of pressmen working around the clock, would necessarily become the casualty of a crude, error-prone, parallax-warped miniaturizing process, was one that became very attractive to library managers, simply because they didn’t want to store the newspapers.” (Baker 2001, p.26)
Richard J. Cox of the University of Pittsburgh points out that Baker neglects other issues than space-saving:
“One of the greatest challenges not addressed by Baker is the immensity of the intellectual control over the thousands of newspaper titles published and the volatility of titles, runs, and other aspects of their publication. Baker, in assailing the turn to microfilm, ignores that the first step of the U.S. Newspaper Program was creating accurate union lists of all American newspapers, from national and regional publications to the most local imprints. What Baker misses in his Romanticizing of preserving the originals is the enormity of the task involved in maintaining accurate bibliographic control or even in acquiring complete runs of most newspapers; it has been through the process of trying to create complete microfilm runs that both bibliographic control and more complete archives of the newspapers have been developed.” (Cox 2000)