The term “microfilm” refers to a reel of film containing reduced images of documents, photographs, and catalogs.
To view the images on the film, researchers need equipment that uses light and magnification to project the images onto a viewing surface.
I. The Early Years: The National Archives as a Leader in Microfilming
In 1936, the National Archives began microfilming to supplement its finding aids.
By 1940, the process transformed into what we know today. The National Archives began to use microfilm to preserve frequently used documents and to aid researchers who found it difficult to travel to Washington, DC, research rooms.
Vernon D. Tate, chief of the Division of Photographic Reproduction and Research for the National Archives, became one of the nation's leading experts in microfilming.
In a 1935 meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Tate presented a paper titled “Micro-filming as an Aid to Research."
By the end of 1941, Tate's division photostatted, photographed, or microfilmed over 75,000 pages of records.
Tate was an advocate of microfilming records then destroying the originals to save space. Sources suggest that in these early years, the National Archives experimented with this process.
Later, when this method was suggested by a GSA administer in 1980, both National Archives employees and the public denounced the disposal of documents.
II. FDR and the Great Military Weapon of World War II
In 1942, Tate gave a lecture to the American Library Association (ALA) in which he referred to microphotography as having comparable “importance with any military weapon thus far disclosed.”
By the end of 1943, the National Archives had preserved 400,000 pages with microfilm.
What led to this severe increase in reproduction?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected as an honorary member of the Society of American Archivists, favored the practice of microfilming records.
In a 1942 speech to the association, he called for an increase in the use of microfilm to ensure that valued documents would be protected from the perils of war.
The National Archives took advantage of the President of the United States' enthusiasm for microfilm, and as a result, hundreds of thousands of documents were reproduced and preserved during World War II.
Tate concluded his ALA lecture: “Microphotography is receiving its bath of fire in the Government service and there can be no question of the outcome.”
III. Microcopies as an Aid to Research
Although the National Archives had made great progress in microfilming, by 1947, the institution could not successfully meet the demands for purchasing copies of rolls.
However, with a $20,000 donation from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1948, the National Archives was able to publish the List of File Microcopies.
As a result, researchers could simply purchase a roll of microfilm rather than plan a potentially expensive trip to Washington, DC.
By 1965, some 67,000 rolls of microfilm were available for sale.
Out of that 67,000, researchers purchased 48,715 rolls that year.
IV. Microfilm and Preservation
In 1956, the National Archives decided to microfilm rather than to flatten or laminate endangered documents.
As Director of Archival Management, Theodore R. Schellenberg emphasized microfilm as a means to advance the preservation and repair of valued documents.
Of the 3.14 million sheets that needed attention, two-thirds were microfilmed.
This mass effort to preserve fragile, deteriorating documents became known as the Microfilm Preservation Program.
One prominent preservation project was the filming of World War II Captured German Records. The project was managed by the American Historical Association and the National Archives, and these records were of great interest. They included private papers of Nazi leaders, records of Reich ministries, records from German private corporations, and much more.
In 1963, panic ensued when some agencies found that their microfilm contained blemishes.
As a result of this scare, The National Bureau of Standards stepped in to conduct research on the problem. This investigation continued into 1968, stalling the National Archives' typical microfilm proceedings.
In 1968, it was determined that those blemishes were simply a result of mishandling by the agencies.
The National Archives had no problems, and its standards proved satisfactory.
An internal scare occurred in the National Archives when Admiral Roland G. Freeman offered a controversial solution to the National Archives' continuous problem of saving space.
In 1980, Admiral Freeman, Administrator for the General Services Administration, the government organization overseeing the National Archives from 1949 to 1985, suggested that the National Archives should microfilm records, destroy them, and send the rolls to regional branches.
Both archivists and researchers worried about the unknown longevity of microfilm and the lack of control the administration would have if valuable documents were dispersed to regional sites.
Although such a move would save space, the public strongly opposed the proposal, and Freeman's plan was quietly dropped.
V. An International Emphasis on Microfilm
In 1966, the Extraordinary Congress of the International Council on Archives was held in Washington, DC.
Here, microfilm was discussed on an international stage.
At this international conference, Morris Rieger, an archivist for the National Archives of the United States, recommended that the ICA create a microfilm and publication program. As a result, the ICA established the Microphotography Committee.
This Microphotography Committee promoted Albert H. Leisinger, Jr.'s book, “Microphotography for Archives,” which emphasized using microfilm as a way to publish valued documents.
According to a survey by the committee, out of 56 countries, all but 10 archives were prepared to participate in microfilming.
VI. The Roots Phenomenon and Genealogical Records
In 1977, the ABC network produced the television miniseries “Roots.”
The miniseries was the television adaptation of Alex Haley's 1976 novel, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
It followed the story of Kunta Kinte, Haley's ancestor who had been captured and sold into slavery at an early age.
Two years later, a sequel miniseries, "Roots: The Next Generations" continued the story of Haley's ancestry from the post–Civil War years until the 1960s.
“Roots” won nine Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, and its finale continues to be one of the highest rated episodes of any television series.
As the nation watched Alex Haley trace his roots, interest in genealogy boomed.
For the first time, there were lines to use microfilm readers, and a time limit was set for researchers using the machines.
By the end of 1977, research demands were 50 percent higher than they had been in previous years.
VII. The Move Toward Digitization
Although the National Archives had made significant progress in microfilming over the years, by the 1990s, only a minuscule fraction of its holdings had been microfilmed.
According to email feedback and website surveys in the mid-2000s, visitors expected to find ALL of the holdings online.
As a result, in the late 1990s, the National Archives launched the Electronic Access Project with the financial support of congressional appropriations.
Through the Electronic Access Project, 124,000 digital copies were reproduced.
In 2004, the National Archives published the “Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Archival Materials for Electronic Access.”
Although these guidelines have since been replaced by a more current protocol, this system was often referenced in digitization projects by cultural heritage institutions across the nation.
Since 2007, the National Archives has continued to make a large-scale effort to digitize records for public access.
Through its most recent plan, the “Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2015–2024,” the National Archives is striving to expand digitization for its most important historical holdings.
Today the online National Archives Catalog contains series-level descriptions of more than 85 percent of its permanent records and more than 2 million digitized copies.
VIII. Microfilm at the National Archives Today
Today, the National Archives has over 4,000 microfilm publications.
Some of the most popular publications are the census catalogs, which give researchers a description of the National Archives' census holdings.
Another publication includes a comprehensive research guide to microfilm holdings, so that researchers may understand the types of records the institution possesses more generally.
Also, the National Archives has subject catalogs for researchers interested in a particular topic. These include: American Indians, Black Studies, Diplomatic Records, Federal Court Records, Genealogical and Biographical Research,Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals, and Military Service Records.
The National Archives' regional archives were once bustling with researchers using microfilm.
However, today, many of the microfilmed records have been digitized and are available online.
The Microfilm Reading Room in Washington, DC, is still of particular interest to those studying genealogy.
Can't make it to DC? Microfilm copies may be purchased online.
Curator — Emily Niekrasz, National Archives
Editor — Mary Ryan, National Archives
Contributor — Jeff Reed, National Archives
Contributor — Jennifer Seitz, National Archives
Historian — Jessie Kratz, National Archives