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Microfilm in the Library
It is not widely known that The New York Public Library (NYPL) has a history of producing 35mm microfilm that dates back to the 1930s. The program began with the filming of newspapers. Newspapers at that time and up to this day are printed on inexpensive low quality paper with a short useful life. Through the years microfilm has become a mature, efficient and inexpensive medium for preserving printed material. Properly stored microfilm has an estimated shelf life of 500 years. Throughout the years the Library expanded microfilm recording to just about everything in print from fragile original music scores, to books, pamphlets, and archival collections. Many thousands of items have been preserved on microfilm. In many cases the original material has deteriorated to a point where it is no longer usable.
Through a recent initiative of the unit responsible for microfilm within the Preservation Division, thousands of library items that were microfilmed in the past are now noted and linked to catalog records of the original printed items in the library's catalog. Staff continue to examine thousands of original camera negatives in an effort to match the microfilm to existing catalog records. In most cases the records are for the original material within the catalog. When a match is found, a notation is placed in the record to indicate to the staff that the material is available on microfilm. Patrons onsite and around the world now have an opportunity to access this material via microfilm.
Unfortunately in some cases, microfilm may be the only option for viewing certain items for study. This could be due to the condition of the original item which has deteriorated significantly or is missing. Many items were already in fragile condition at the time of filming. It is difficult or impossible for the library to provide physical access to these very fragile items and digitizing the original would not be an option.
It is becoming more common for microfilm to be used as a vehicle towards to providing digital access. Digitization of microfilm is already being employed thoughout the country providing access to materials that in many cases was only available on microfilm. The Library of Congress is engaged in a growing, ongoing project for digitizing the nation's historic newspaper titles. Libraries from around the country are participating in providing local newspaper content. The New York Public Library has contributed digitized copies of two New York newspaper titiles to the National Digital Newspaper Program. World wide access is now availble to The Sun and The Evening World via the Chronicling America website.
Researchers are able to gain access to microfilm through interlibrary loan from a participating institution or via Research Services. Follow this link to find out more about the history of microfilm and how it has evolved over the years.