Monday, January 29, 2018

Microphotography at the State Archives

The Arkansas State Archives is made up of several sections, each with their own unique purpose within the ASA.  We have a section that works on acquiring and accessioning collections, a section that handles events and programming and a section that handles services for patrons. One important section in the Arkansas State Archives, though, is our microphotography department, which creates microfilm used for research by our patrons in our research room.  One of its biggest jobs is to photograph issues of newspapers from around the state.

    Front page of May 7, 1945 edition of the
       Fort Smith Times Record

Newspapers are delivered primarily to homes and businesses to be consumed by the public, but what happens to the issues sent to the Arkansas State Archives? With over 60 years of microfilming experience, the State Archives has developed a smooth and efficient process to dutifully preserve the 140+ publications that we collect. When a publication arrives in the mail, it is immediately sorted by title by our microfilm staff. Once a month for dailies, and once a quarter for weeklies, that title is pulled out to be checked for missing issues, cataloged, and prepared for filming. This preparation includes ironing the paper to remove any creases, removing mailing labels, and repairing any tears that may have occurred during mailing. When those papers are ready, they are moved to the holding shelves where they are again sorted by title. These publications will stay on these shelves until there are enough issues to fill a 100’ roll of microfilm, which is a minimum of two months.
   Sorting newspapers by title

When it is ready, a microfilm technician will perform a “step test,” taking photographs of the publications at different light settings to determine the best exposure for that particular paper, and then use a Recordak micro-file machine to photograph the newspapers. Each 100’ roll of film can hold an average of 800 frames, which takes the microfilmer 1-3 days to complete. That negative is sent to our on-site lab to be processed, and then returned for quality control. As many of our newspapers are recycled after filming, it is essential that every single frame is checked for potential problems before it is approved and the microfilm technician goes to the next newspaper. That negative then returns to the lab to have a positive duplicate made for general public use, and the negative is stored in an archival quality box in our temperature and humidity controlled vault. The silver halide film that we use has a projected shelf life of 500 years.

   Filming newspapers                                  Reviewing film

One of the most frequent questions we are asked is why do we bother to microfilm anything anymore? The answer is that even when kept under the best conditions, paper can degrade over time. Newspapers are especially vulnerable because they are created with perishable materials; they aren’t meant to last very long and are incredibly difficult to preserve.  Consequently, it’s important to film them so that the information is available in perpetuity.

                                                                Ironing newspapers to remove creases
In other words, microphotography ensures that there is a backup copy of the information contained in records and newspapers. No matter how much time passes or how often online digital formats evolve and change (and they do and will continue to do so), the archival quality film we use will always be available for re-digitization and the information will be protected and not lost.

Through its hard work, our microphotography department does everything it can to ensure that the collections of the Arkansas State Archives are safely held for future generations.