J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Archives Just Aren’t the Same

On Monday I visited the National Archives outpost in Waltham for the first time since this eventful day. I went to look at the same material as before: pension applications from Revolutionary War veterans who had survived into the 1800s, reproduced on reels and reels of microfilm for distribution around the country.

The steel filing cabinets containing all those reels loomed over the N.A.R.A. reading room. Lined up along the walls were low-tech microfilm readers, kept in dim light to make the images a little brighter. Each of us researchers would hunch over our workspace like extras in a Terry Gilliam movie. Only a couple of the machines could print, so you had to find the images you wanted, unspool the film, walk to a printing machine, crank back to the images,… Still, there was great information that made the trip worthwhile.

This time, however, the helpful staff person told me that they had thrown all those microfilm reels away. What?

A while back, N.A.R.A. entered some sort of public-private partnership with Ancestry.com to digitize the Revolutionary War pension material. That database is now complete. Each agency outlet has a subscription for all its computers. Meanwhile, the service can sell access to the digital files other libraries and individuals. (There’s a similar arrangement with Footnote.com governing other material.)

Instead of reading images projected by microfilm readers, visitors to the N.A.R.A. outlet now sit at computers and read the images on screens. With no more need for the microfilm, the Waltham office discarded all those bulky rolls and, I presume, the looming file cabinets.

As I sank into nostalgia for the horrible old microfilm readers, I kept telling myself that the actual information on them is now more widely available than before. People can research at home. Two people in the same building can look at the same “reel” at the same time. All the computer terminals can print. Scrolling from one image to the next might be a little slower, but that speed will improve while microfilm readers won’t. And the reading room is certainly more airy.

Still, it didn’t feel the same. I may need another visit to get used to the new tech.

It was easier adjusting to a different technological jump forward, at the Massachusetts Historical Society: a microfilm reader that sent the image from an unspooling roll of microfilm into a computer terminal. One could scroll, adjust, magnify, and print using commands on the screen. (Theoretically, at least: I didn’t find an image I wanted to print.)

Both these technological developments threaten to take away the “hunching in the dark” aspect of reading historic documents.


Charles Bahne said...

At some (most? all?) of those microfilm readers that are attached to computer terminals, you can also save the image as a PDF file to a flash drive, or e-mail it to yourself. I'm told that the demand for printed copies is declining rapidly as more and more people simply save an electronic file.

They used to give you an option to burn the file to a CD, but that option too is now history.

Brooke said...

For old time's sake, you can head over to the Massachusetts Archives and read microfilm there. You can even still get a workout by cranking through the reels by hand!

pilgrimchick said...

I can't hide my enthusiasm that the microfilm technology is FINALLY passing out of research. If you've done any historical research in the last 40 years, you've inevitably sat in front of one of these horrible machines. My primary experience occurred at the American Antiquarian Society about 8 years ago, where, I could view a lot of their archives on microfilm, but I was limited to ONLY 10 DIFFERENT COPIES of varying pages. What the heck was that about--I had to pay for them, so who cares if I wanted 70 copies or 5? I managed to make a "mistake" one day and make as many copies as I wanted--whew!

Unknown said...

Are the original hard-copy documents still preserved?

J. L. Bell said...

I believe the National Archives is preserving the original documents and copies of the microfilm (negative and positive). It’s just this regional outlet that didn’t see the need to retain its copy of the microfilm.

John L. Smith said...

My nostalgic experiences don't have the same feelings as J.L. has. I found the microfilm reels and viewing stations noisy and primitive at both the Massachusetts Historical Society and up at the state archives on Columbia Point. The pages of reference printed, if at all, sideways on the pgaes and partly blurred. All hail computers! I will only miss the common comradarie inside the buildings!

Tess said...

Well, Mr. Bell, I'm sharing the same tearful nostalgia with you. Change is difficult for those so accustomed to mundane.

Yes, those technological advances are time-saving and convenient. Yes, they will prevent the many headaches from dealing with the old microfilm machines, but why, oh why, throw the old reels away? Couldn't they have been sold in public auction, and the money given for the betterment of the Archives? I understand the originals of the reels are still around, but for what purpose was there to throw the copies out like some old blanket? No further use, I guess, and with no appreciation for the history of those objects.

Alas, an old-time way of life passes into oblivion with no fanfare, with no good-bye. History is history, and things of the technological past are to be left in the dust of a new and seemingly better advancement.

David said...

There are places that recycle microfilm. I hope one was used rather than the mf just being discarded.


Barbara Poole said...

I was also shocked when I went to that NARA Waltham facility. Not only were most of the microfilm readers and cabinets gone, but there were only three people sitting at computers. I was told all the records were on Ancestry. It was a wasted trip and I could have stayed at home and done it. One of these days, I believe they will close those doors.

J. L. Bell said...

That Waltham facility is scheduled to close for renovation later this year, but then reopen. I don’t know what its new configuration will be. There are still some paper records there, and not everything on microfilm has been digitized yet.

I’m sure N.A.R.A. is rethinking how it works in a digitally connected age, and how it can best fulfill its mission. The librarians at Waltham were very helpful to a couple on their first visit, and that sort of help wouldn’t have been so available online.

In addition, we’ve long thought that democracy requires the public to have access to government records; such access is even mentioned in the Declaration. While putting government data online makes it more available in one way, adding a paywall makes it less available in another. A locale for free access might be a constitutional necessity.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve been told that Footnote.com does offer online access to Revolutionary War pension files. I thought that was the case, but at N.A.R.A. the staff definitely sent me through Ancestry.com.