Reading or converting microfilm
December 18, 2009 5:10 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to read your own microfilm or have it converted (inexpensively) to a more accessible digital format?

I recently discovered that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History maintains a microfilm collection of my great-great aunt's newspaper articles. Initially I requested copies but was told that the documents are too voluminous and in spotty condition, and that my only option is to purchase copies of the two rolls of microfilm.

I'm in the process of doing that now. Once I receive them, is there a place I can go (I live in New York City) to read through the materials and obtain print-outs of the articles I'm most interested in? Or is my only real option to pay for conversion to a digital format?

If conversion is the best option, does anyone know a reliable place that's not too expensive?
posted by maud to Technology (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
NYPL has a bunch of microfilm readers. Since microfilm is fairly standard, you can probably use them, might want to call ahead and see if there's any problem with BYO. Here's one example of one of their lirbaries that has not only a reader but a fairly nice printer.
A number of microfilm readers are available in the Jewish Division reading room, including the new Canon 800 reader-printer, which produces the best possible paper copies from microfilm and microfiche at 25 cents a copy
Once you take a look at what the film looks like you can figure out how much it would be worthwhile to get conversion done.
posted by jessamyn at 5:27 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thank you! That's exactly what I'll do.
posted by maud at 5:46 PM on December 18, 2009

Just as an alternative, depending on the quantity you want to process, it's possible to scan microfilm/microfiche on a flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter. I did this once, in order to get some charts from microfiche into a report; I used Vuescan to do the scan and process the results (it has a preset for microfilm).

Working with microfilm on a flatbed might be a little more onerous than microfiche (which you can basically lay out over the flatbed surface) but I suspect you could do it in a pinch. If the films you get happen to be 35mm with standard perforations you could probably use a batch-fed film scanner, but all the microfilm I've ever seen (admittedly not that much) has been 16mm or smaller.

If it's only a few pages or if you don't mind going film-paper-digital, a library with a good reader/printer is probably your best bet, or at least the one you should try first. But if you find yourself with a lot or if you want to archive it directly from the film, it is possible to do it with a transparency scanner.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:10 PM on December 18, 2009

You can probably find a library with a microfilm scanner that will scan the micro right to a PDF. I know of several at universities in the Philadelphia area, so there must be a library in New York with one. Don't be afraid to call university libraries and ask, they might let you come in and use it, especially at a state school.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:33 PM on December 18, 2009

Digital conversion of microfilm is exactly what I do for a living. Price varies widely depending on where you go - there's a company in St Paul MN called River City Data that is pretty cheap and can probably handle the conversion by mail (tell them ISC sent you), but I am certain somebody in a city the size of New York offers the service. For straight film-to-image conversion, no data entry, you should be able to find somebody who can do it in the $0.05/image price range - but that'll get you every image on the roll, and it sounds like you only want certain pages, which is more work and more expensive. The google search "New York" digital conversion microfilm pulls up all kinds of businesses.

I've also done what somebody else has suggested, and scanned film on a flatbed scanner using a transparency adapter -- keep in mind, though, a lot of home-grade scanners get those high resolutions through interpolation, and the sensor isn't really sensitive enough to get 1200dpi; your mileage may vary depending on your scanner. Two common magnifications for film are 16x and 32x (newspapers are probably 16x or even something lower), so if the scanner's actual max resolution is 600dpi and you're scanning film reduced 16x from its original size, your image will have a practical resolution of 37dpi, or much grainier than a fax. It may be good enough for reading, though, if that's all you're interested in.

In the 'getting creative' realm: the simplest digital microfilm reader I've seen amounts to a high-resolution video camera with a microscopic/macro lens, hooked up to a computer or TV monitor. The "lightsource" is generally a piece of white plastic with bright LEDs behind it; the magnification lens and the camera are both off-the-shelf -- the software is about the only custom part. Something like an EyeClops magnifying camera, a $3 LED flashlight, and a white Tupperware lid might give you a workable microfilm reader.

Advice on using a viewer-printer at the library: clean the glass that touches the film before you start. Every library microfilm viewer I've seen is filthy, and the more gunk on the glass the more likely your shiny, new microfilm is going to get scratched, plus it gives you better prints. You can ask for help, but it's a very simple process; remove the lens assembly (it's designed to do this; it's how you change resolutions), which exposes the glass sandwich that the film slides between. Usually the top glass slides towards you to unhook from the machine, allowing you to clean both sides and in between the two pieces of glass.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:05 AM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

All such helpful advice. Thanks, everyone!
posted by maud at 7:00 PM on December 19, 2009

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