I started researching in archives as an undergraduate. In grad school, I traipsed through the Library of Congress and Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. Then I continued volunteering in archives until I entered library school when I started student level positions in libraries. Not once in that nine year time period did I touch a reel of microfilm.
That has changed now. I’m currently reviewing reels of microfilm from the State Historical Society in Bismarck. Once I finally learned how to thread the microfilm independently, I started sifting through the wealth of North Dakota history present on the reel. Here are some of the items I recently viewed: correspondence related to the Yellowstone-Missouri confluence, information on the creation of Fort Union as a state park, and facts about farm loans. After much searching, I found the items in which we have an interest: documents related to the trial of TR’s boat thieves. These archival documents offer essential background to the legendary story.
I’m not alone in my avoidance of microfilm. I know historians and scholars just starting out in the field who will drive additional distance to use other media, avoiding the film. Using the reels seems like a craft, something similar to developing photos in a dark room. When I’m setting up a roll of microfilm on a reel, I think about old movie theaters and images flickering across a big screen. Once the film is positioned correctly, I get to watch images scroll by on a small screen, one historic snapshot at a time.
Having mastered the microfilm craft, I appreciate its value in new ways, as the most advanced technology of its day. I also understand the importance of converting materials from this format to new media through which current and future scholars will gain access. A drive isn’t always necessary for good archival material.
Pursuing the boat thieves, 1886. From the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.