There is a certain peace to be found in the whirring fans and components of an old microfilm reader — the frosted glass screen and sturdy feel of the controls take you back to when research meant hours of careful study, not a few minutes in front of a glowing computer. And while using time-tested medium today is a nostalgic nod to the past, microfilm has largely given way to instant searchability and a seemingly endless stream of information online.
Libraries across the United States are pinned between these two worlds — the physical and the digital. Where some have struggled to find a path forward, others have moved along and leveraged technology to open access where it had never existed before. The Maine State Library is one of those moving ahead.
The library’s collection of historic state newspapers is getting some attention that will hopefully preserve the aging and save it from an imminent demise. Even the institution’s microfilm collection is getting a digital hand-up with an infusion of hundreds of thousands of grant dollars from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The recently announced two-year effort to make the solid-state media available online runs parallel to ongoing efforts already underway, said the library's Director of Collections Development and Digital Initiatives Adam Fisher. But now with $275,000 in grant funding, that goal is more attainable.
Master microfilm reels will be digitized through a contractor, while books and other media will continue to be digitized by library staff and volunteers.
“The grant will fund the digitization of master microfilm reels of historic Maine newspapers, primarily those created before 1923. We could possibly digitize stuff after 1923," he said, "but we expect that we will probably max out the grant just doing the older content."
After 1922, the papers are subject copyright laws, and libraries looking to open content to the greater Internet community must content with the permissions of the copyright holders. In some cases, the companies are long gone, and ownership must be tracked down.
“That’s not to say that those hurdles can’t be overcome, we just need to get permission from publishers and so forth to digitize those,” Fisher said. “Those newspapers tend to be more available on microfilm and different places, so our concern, primarily at this point, is the older content, the stuff that is at higher risk.”
Despite the inevitable effects of aging on any medium, Fisher said properly created and maintained microfilm is very stable, and can last up to 500 years. Some of the institution’s paper copies are not so fortunate.
Newsprint, or the paper newspapers are printed on, is not such a stable medium. From the low-quality, mass-production paper itself to the acidic ink that makes up the printed words it holds, some of the non-film collection is at risk of disappearing forever, which is why parallel efforts are being made to digitize print copies as well.
"There is a greater issue here, and that’s the newspapers that have never been imaged," Fischer said. "There are some in Maine that have not been imaged and they are only available in the hardcopy and the hardcopy is in rough shape."
Once scanned, library experts are able to run the pages through software that identifies the text and allows it to be searched. The files are then made available through the institution’s cloud-based repository, www.digitalmaine.com, as well as the Library of Congress Chronicling America archive at www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov.
Fisher said while digital media may be the easiest way for the greater public to access the large collection, it comes with some considerations — file longevity among them.
“There is some concern about the long-term stability about these files that are being created,” he said. “Digital is so new. Even if you look back to files that were created 25 years ago, we don’t know the environmental impact of things like radiation and solar flares, if that is going to result in these files not being accessible in the future. The things that are important that we are digitizing, if they are not available on microfilm, we’re going to look to have those done eventually using images created as part of this project.”
As is the case with libraries around the country, staffing for special projects in sparse. Maine relies on volunteers to do the scanning.
Lisa Jessick is one such volunteer attached to the Friends of the Libby Memorial Library in Old Orchard Beach. She and several others have spent a collective 150 hours using specialized scanners to chronicle historical collections of books and newspapers.
The experience has allowed her, and ultimately the rest of the world, to see pieces of content that might have otherwise gone unshared.
“It’s been wonderful to be able to see the results online,” she said. “The people that are at the Maine State Library in this particular area are so helpful with their knowledge, with sharing their information. They are so passionate about what they do. Hearing this and seeing the different projects they are working on, it gets us excited as well.”
Fisher and Jessick both said they are looking forward to the seeing where the project takes the state and its library network in the future.