“The camera that takes a face can take a page”: microfilm as a scientific aid

Estelle Blaschke

In The Pencil of Nature, published in 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot famously described the virtues of photography, “an art, likely in all probability to be much employed in the future”.1 Talbot commented on each of the 24 photogenic drawings by detailing the production process or suggesting potential applications of the medium and its expected usefulness. Drawing on the example of three plates, namely, Plate IX, “Facsimile of an Old Printed Page”, Plate XI, “Copy of a Lithographic Print”, and Plate XXIII, “Hagar in the Desert”, he emphasized the reproductive qualities of photography. Copying originals, such as engravings or prints, through photography was “a very important [application]”2 and an integral part of the art of photography. As Talbot noted with regard to Plate XI, “it enables us at pleasure to alter the scale, and to make the copies as much larger or smaller than the originals, as we may desire”.3 Facsimiles, as Talbot furthermore noted, could preserve originals from loss, but, more importantly, “be multiplied to any extent”.4 As recent scholarship has shown, Talbot’s various other interests, among others, the decoding and translation of ancient texts, nurtured his enthusiasm for the photographic art.5 The possibility of making copies of rare or fragile material was something Talbot was clearly excited about. Photography allowed for the duplication of documents, manuscripts, and prints, and thus rendered such objects mobile. With the help of the apparatus, one could not only produce and store copies, but also reduce or increase the scale of these originals—as one wished—and this striking feature of photography clearly distinguished it from other methods of reproduction.

This chapter explores the purely reproductive character of photography. The form in which this is most plainly demonstrated is microphotography.6 The chapter retraces the emergence of this practice, in particular of microfilm, in libraries and archives during the 1920s and 1930s, and considers the technological changes, the formation of networks, and the quest for standards that, taken together, shaped the idea of microphotography not only as a reproductive technique, but as a potential information technology of the future.

The use of photography as a copying machine in libraries and museums started around 1870: national libraries such as the British Library, the French Bibliothèque Nationale, the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, as well as some local research libraries not only collected photographs and set up photo libraries but installed darkrooms, hired professional photographers, or allowed their readers to make their own photographs of research material. Thus, at a time when the documentary impulse, as Kelley Wilder and Gregg Mitman have termed it, resulted in the creation of various types of (massive) photographic collections and archives, photography also entered these

Microfilm as a scientific aid 133 institutions through the back door, namely, as a discreet technology for the reproduction of textual or visual material.7

A new form of book

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the idea of using mechanical recording instead of manual copying techniques as an aid to research as well as for documentation and administrative purposes became more widely discussed, owing to a seminal essay co-authored by Paul Otlet, the founder of the International Institute of Bibliography, and the Belgian physicist and engineer Robert Goldschmidt. Published in 1906, the rather brief essay addressed “Sur une nouvelle forme du livre: le livre microphotographique” (A new form of book: the microphotographie book).8 At first, it consisted of only nine pages, contained no illustrations, and was circulated mainly among likeminded librarians. Over a period of nearly 30 years, however, it was revised and republished several times, also in various languages, and images were added. On the one hand, this attested to the highly unstable and experimental mode of microphotography during this early phase of development, in which most of Otlet and Goldschmidt’s propositions had repeatedly to be readjusted, many of them remaining indeed hypothetical. On the other hand, it pointed to the burgeoning interest and the divulgation of thought among scholars, librarians, and officials with regard to a technology that had the potential to change the ways in which information was collected and shared.

Otlet and Goldschmidt named several isolated attempts during the nineteenth century to put microphotography into practice, but it was only now (they claimed) that it was ready to alleviate the alleged inconveniences of the printed book, namely, its rigid form and the cost of producing and storing it. The authors furthermore highlighted the radical increase in the number of scientific publications, especially scientific journals and documentation in general, as a consequence of the thematic and geographical expansion of the sciences, and claimed that “books these days tend towards the photographic form”.9 Microphotography promised not only remote access to more, or previously unavailable or unpublished material, but also to replace the external or interlibrary loan. In addition, the authors imagined it as a method of duplicating and sharing inventories and card catalogues and—to some extent—of preserving library holdings, especially easily perishable material, such as newspapers.

In relation to the concept of modern documentation put forward by Otlet and others,10 which went beyond the collection of books, journals, and catalogues to embrace all written, visual, and audio documents, photography was acknowledged for its capacity to standardize forms and formats. It facilitated the flow of things. Furthermore, the idea of using the medium for dissecting and recomposing on a single filmstrip bits of information from different sources, be they text, images, graphs, etc., resonated with the more general tendency around 1900 toward increased flexibility and agency in handling and creating information and knowledge.11 For instance, Otlet produced and distributed a large series of 35-mm filmstrips covering topics as diverse as the history of costumes, statistics on the nascent automobile industry, or news from around the world on a particular day. Promoted under the flashy title “Encyclopdia Universalis Mundaneum”,12 these “microfilms” were motivated by the idea that, through the roll film, photography could be used to bring together and edit the wealth of available information and that, ultimately, images would outstrip text in importance. The essay was also driven by Robert Goldschmidt’s invention of the Bibliophote around 1910, a reproduction system operating with blank film sheets (similar to microfiche), and by its commercialization through the company Société Anonyme La Photoscopie. Goldschmidt, who acted as company director, had the engineering skills, Otlet the network and institutional recognition in the library world. The Bibliophote underwent several changes in function and brand name and, although presented at various events, failed commercially. However, the main concepts that would traverse the history and narrative of microphotography as a scientific aid were established through this essay. These may be summarized as mobility and versatility, standardization and rationalization, preservation and diffusion.

From business to libraries

Around 1925, microphotography received new impetus, first, from several technological developments and, second, from its use in trade and industry. Eastman Kodak, the inventor of the film roll, heavily invested in the development and improvement of the Recordak reproduction system, which was introduced in the US market in 1928 under the slogan “Accounting by Photography”, and later adapted to library services. The Recordak as well as other similar devices launched by such companies as Remington Rand, Burroughs, and Zeiss Ikon were widely used to duplicate and protect data in banks, insurance companies, retail, and governmental institutions during the 1930s and 1940s and throughout the twentieth century.13

The technological developments encompassed the introduction of the fire-resistant celluloid acetate film in 1925, branded as safety film, and the refinement of the chemical emulsions in combination with the film roll (instead of glass plates, for example), making the long(er)-term use of photography as an archival medium a viable possibility. Consequently, numerous American, French, and German manufacturers, big and small, such as Zeiss Ikon, Eastman Kodak, the International Research Cooperation, Argus, or the International Filmbook Cooperation, started working to improve and diversify microfilm cameras and projectors for applications in libraries and archives, which differed significantly from the forms of reproduction required for business administration and bureaucracy. With regard to libraries and archives, the often heterogeneous material required frequent calibration. In addition, the projector, meaning the visualization of the content, was an indispensable yet problematic component (Figure 10.1). The screen projection (or alternatively, the wall or table projection), which had been promoted as a new and powerful tool, was also one of the greatest weaknesses of microphotography. From the outset, users condemned the strain on the eye caused by the strong light and occasionally blurred images.14 Most projectors did not yet work in daylight conditions. In addition, the electric screen projectors easily overheated. Among scholars, even among outspoken advocates, the dependency on the machine for reading microfilm was met with caution. As Herman H. Fussier, the librarian of the University of Chicago, stated:

This use of a mechanical device to permit consultation is so new in the entire history of reading and writing as to be no small obstacle ... It is worth recognition that the greater the improvement, especially in respect to ease of loading, operation, and legibility of the image, the less objection will there be to “mechanical reading”.15

Student using Argus reading machine, Russell Hall Library, Teachers College, 1940. Courtesy of the Gottesman Libraries, Columbia University

Figure 10.1 Student using Argus reading machine, Russell Hall Library, Teachers College, 1940. Courtesy of the Gottesman Libraries, Columbia University.

The user experience was limited to consulting content on film, without experience of the physical object itself and, in difference to the movie screen or today’s computer screens, the poor quality of the images screened and the plain glass surface were hardly conducive to a sense of immersion. Many viewing devices developed during the 1920s and 1930s never went beyond the patent or prototype stage. Standards for microphotography were in flux and the latest technology was often outdated even before it gained a substantial market foothold.

Despite several shortcomings, however, the promise of microphotography led, especially in the US, to close cooperation between scholars of various academic disciplines, philanthropic foundations, public institutions, and commercial companies, who tested and further developed their recording and viewing technologies on the basis of large-scale pilot projects. In 1927, with a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the principal sponsor of the new technology, the Library of Congress started copying manuscripts related to the history of the US and the Americas that were stored in the libraries, archives, and museums of several European countries. Internally referred to as Project A, this first transatlantic photographic copying venture resulted in over three million still images and was a template for the reproduction also of non-European manuscripts in the framework of the Foreign Copying Program at the Library of Congress. Starting in the mid-1930s, the university libraries at Harvard, Yale, and Chicago, which lacked access to

European collections, established on-site microfilm laboratories as a complement to their acquisition of foreign books, journals, and manuscripts for their research collections.16 From 1935 to 1942, under the umbrella of Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration, the Historical Records Survey aimed to bring together historical records and newspapers from local and regional archives, exploring thus the possibility of relating data from various US institutions.1'

While microfilm was mainly used to reproduce written, typed, or printed source material, there existed several projects for microfilming images, which again called for an adjustment of the reproduction technique in order to attain an adequate image quality. Compared to the semi-automatic mass reproduction of rather homogenous written or typed material, reproducing images entailed more labor and the use of high-quality camera and film material. For instance, around 1944, under the guidance of the librarian and photographer Paul Vanderbilt, the Photographs and Prints

Sample color reproduction, enlargement from Kodachrome slide, British Manuscript Project, 1942. Courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center

Figure 10.2 Sample color reproduction, enlargement from Kodachrome slide, British Manuscript Project, 1942. Courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center.

Corresponding 35-mm slide. Courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center (see Figure 10.2)

Figure 10.3 Corresponding 35-mm slide. Courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center (see Figure 10.2).

department of the Library of Congress microfilmed large parts of the photographic collection of the Farm Security Administration (FSA-OWI) as a security backup. This primarily concerned a series of edited pictures referred to as lots and arranged according to subject matter and geographic region.18 Similarly, the vast British Manuscript Project, carried out as of around 1938 by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in collaboration with several British libraries, comprised copies of thousands of illustrated medieval manuscripts recorded on the newly introduced Kodachrome color film (Figures 10.2 and 10.3). The positive film was cut into individual units and mounted on a slide frame. Here, microfilming was conceived as a cost-efficient reproduction of art on film rolls for the purpose of arts education, especially in less funded schools and colleges. During the early 1940s, the College Art Association Microfilm Slide Project, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, another major supporter, went along the same lines. In collaboration with the commercial service University Microfilms (today’s ProQuest),19 this project consisted in producing photographic records of exhibition objects and displays, such as the American Indian Art Exhibition at the 1939 San Francisco World Fair.20 Compared to the reproduction of masses of documents on bulk film, however, microfilming images was a far more time-consuming and expensive undertaking. Toward the end of the 1930s and during World War II, microfilm turned into a wartime technology: it was widely used for intelligence, which consisted, among other things, in the reproduction of scholarship published in German journals, such as Zeiss-Nachrichten, Zeitschrift fiir Astrophysik, Zeitschrift fiir Biologic, Automobiltechnische Zeitung, etc.21

Small negative, great image

Besides these large-scale institutional projects, there existed more individual and selective ways of using photography as a copying machine and as a scientific aid.

In 1925, the Leica and other brands of small-format camera appeared on the market. The Leica specifically was promoted not only as an advanced amateur camera, but also as the scientist’s companion.22 To quote Erich Stenger, the Leica “systematically and irrevocably penetrated that area previously considered an uncontested domain of the large-format [camera], namely the scientific realm”.23 In terms of library and archival work, it had the advantage of “not being bound to the place of issue so that the library user himself [could] act as a photographer”.24 Taking images for research purposes was encouraged even by libraries themselves, albeit not explicitly. As indicated in the guide to international cooperation between libraries published by the Parisian Institut international de coopération intellectuelle in 1933, reproduction on film was far more advantageous.25 Whether photographed by the user, the library staff, or even externally contracted companies, the cost of negatives was but a fraction of that of interlibrary loans and other forms of reproduction, such as Photostat.26 Often, using one’s private camera required merely payment of a one-off access fee, irrespective of the number of photographs taken. The empowering notion of selecting and reproducing specific items was mirrored in the rhetoric of appropriation that appeared throughout the history of microfilm. As Suzanne Briet, chief librarian of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris put it, “A thick binder, microfilmed, can fit into a vest pocket. An entire library is contained in a handbag”.2/ Here, referring to very personal items kept close to the body—the handbag and vest pocket (or, to use others’ suggestions, the matchbox or the pocket watch)—was quite revolutionary given that many libraries and archives at the time, especially in Europe, allowed the public only limited access to their collections. Among the first libraries to adopt the Leica miniature camera for its film experiments was the Huntington Library in San Marino, which had a strict policy of not lending its holdings. Starting in the early 1930s, the librarian and director of the department of photographic reproduction, Lodewyk Bendikson,28 used the 35-mm Leica camera to reproduce items in the rare collection and to experiment with the use of photographic enlargements for the verification of manuscripts (Figure 10.4). To work around the inadequacies of the viewing process, Bendikson suggested that content be printed in miniature on opaque card (also known as microcard)29 and be read with the aid of a binocular microscope. Despite the obvious limitations of Bendikson’s experiments and publications,30 they sparked vivid interest among numerous scholars and librarians in the US and Europe. It was also Bendikson who, as a consultant to the ACLS’s Joint Committee on Material for Research and a member of the International Federation of Documentation, drew attention to the imprécisions and potential misunderstandings inherent to the terminology of microphotography. In relation to the problem of establishing technical standards, especially on an international scale,31 Bendikson pointed out that the prefix “micro” inevitably trespassed on the terminology of microscopy and microscopic research. Especially the words photomicroscopy and photomicrography, meaning the making of photographic images of the microscopic field under observation (also referred to as “macrophotography”) led to confusion. As Bendikson further clarified, “micro” was commonly used when speaking about the 35-mm format. Thus, to use a small-format camera, such as the Leica, was synonymous for some with microfilming.

Compared to reprography for the purpose of publication, the actual quality of microphotography played a less important role, especially when microfilming masses of documents. Building on the notion of the “poor image”,32 as brought forward by Hito Steyerl with regard to the circulation and multiplication of digital images, one

Leica camera attached to Photostat device, ca. 1930. Department of Photographic Reproduction. Courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens

Figure 10.4 Leica camera attached to Photostat device, ca. 1930. Department of Photographic Reproduction. Courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens.

could argue that the enhanced mobility and accessibility of historical sources and collections compensated for the at times mediocre quality of the reproductions on 16-or 35-mm film. Researchers or students who were unable to access specific original material appreciated at least having access to it in some form or other. In cases where originals deteriorated or were discarded after their reproduction, the filmed copy acquired the status of a unique source and so lent weight to the idea of the hybrid nature of the photographic original.

The hybrid nature of photographs was especially apparent with regard to the use of microfilm for the reproduction of business records. Here, the authenticity of microfilm was never called into question. The object, that is, the original material, migrated straight into its image. This effortless migration essentially resulted from court rulings that admitted filmed business records as “regular records”.33 In this way, the original document became obsolete and could be thrown away, especially since a business record on paper did not carry any material value except for what was written on it. The photograph became the master file, which erased the material particularities and inconveniences of the original object, but not without creating new material features and new inconveniences, such as the sensitive needs of film preservation, the often mediocre reproduction quality, and the investment in the viewing apparatus, etc.

The great and maybe decisive advantage of film as the material basis was that it functioned as an image carrier, storing its content in a latent form—the negative— through which it could become visible and printable, wherever and whenever required. If used as a mere backup, the visibility of the content became even a matter of potentiality: it turned into a resource that was rarely activated but highly appreciated in case it was needed. Film or photography acted as a proxy between the material source and its highly flexible use. Its added value consisted in the mobility of the content and the radical compression of “stuff”. However, while photography rendered visual and textual material more accessible, it also depended more and more on hardware, in particular the viewing devices. As a consequence, the experience of looking at photographs was transferred to the virtual space of the desktop screen.

Finally, the very term “photography” was hardly employed, or rather dropped in the course of the history of microphotography. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the reference to photography was evident with the general use of “microphotography”, the numerous “photo-duplication services” established in libraries and archives and devices such as the “Photoclerk”. However, during the second half of the century, expressions such as “microform” or “micrographics” came to dominate the field. This shift responded to the growing variety of forms (film, fiche, aperture cards, etc.), but also hints at the determination to clearly distinguish this kind of “functional” photography from “real” photography, meaning vernacular, artistic, or news photography, which also flourished during this precise period. Microphotography was simply not considered photography, but seen as a convenient and efficient form of storage in the long history of information management.

Although the idea of microphotography had existed since the early days of the invention of photography and notwithstanding the fact that it developed into a scientific aid and a tool of business administration, it has largely resisted history. The writings about photography, in particular, often seem strangely at odds with one of the most characteristic features of the medium: its reproducibility. And, since microphotography has no named author and its value as a photographic object is often overlooked, it is rarely recognized as a cultural artifact. Another major reason for the lack of studies in the field lies in its academic ambivalence: as a primarily utilitarian device, microphotography consequently oscillates between library and information studies, the history of photography, the history of technology, media studies, and the history of science. Its study accordingly requires a conscious transgression of the disciplinary boundaries that have until recently limited this and many other aspects of the history of photography.


  • 1 William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844), 1-2.
  • 2 Ibid., 35.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Ibid., 61.
  • 5 See Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean and Chitra Ramalingam, eds., William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).
  • 6 Microphotography is used here as an umbrella term for all microreproductions on transparent film, which includes the reel film, microfiche, and the aperture card, a combination of a punch card and a film negative. There existed further forms and formats (microdot, microcard, etc.), which all differed in terms of their application and the way their content could be read.

See Gregg Mitman and Kelley Wilder, eds., Documenting the World: Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 1-22.

Paul Otlet and Robert Goldschmidt, Sur une nouvelle forme du livre: le livre microphotographique, Publication 81 (Brussels: Institut International de Bibliographie, 1906).

“Le livre tend de nos jours à prendre la forme photographique”, ibid., 3.

See, among others, Alex Wright, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); W. Boyd Rayward, International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet (New York: Elsevier, 1990); and W. Boyd Ray ward, “Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944)”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45, no. 4 (1994): 235-250.

See Anke te Heesen, The Newspaper Clipping: A Modern Paper Object, trans. Lori Lantz (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014). It may furthermore be noted that Robert Goldschmidt pioneered wireless telegraphy and radio, and worked in parallel on the creation of a hands-on laboratory for the popularization of electricity.

The Mundaneum was the name of the documentation center that Otlet founded together with Henri La Fontaine in 1910 in Brussels.

See Estelle Blaschke, “Installed for Your Protection: Microfilm als Medium der Bürokratie”, Archiv der Mediengeschichte 16 (2016): 101-113.

Several studies on the issue were conducted in libraries and, hence, one of the key concerns of the manufacturers was how to improve the viewing process. See Adelbert Ames, Walter F. Dearborn, and Wallace O. Fenn, Eye Fatigue in the Reading of Microfilm, Committee for Scientific Aids to Learning (National Research Council, March 1, 1939); and Walter R. Miles, “Subjective Impressions of Efficiency in Reading Microfilm”, Journal of Documentary Reproduction vol. 3, no 1 (March 1940): 61-65.

Herman H. Fussier, Photographic Reproduction for Libraries: A Study of Administrative Problems (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1942), 200-201.

See, among others, A.F. Kuhlman, “Microphotography in Research and Library Work”, Peabody Journal of Education 17, no. 4 (January 1940): 223-235; and Keyes D. Metcalf, “Implications of Microfilm and Microprint for Libraries”, Library Journal 70 (September 1945): 718-723.

Clifton Dale Foster, “Microfilming Activities of the Historical Records Survey, 1935-42”, The American Archivist 48, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 45-55.

For more on LOTS, see “FSA-OWI Photographic Prints”, accessed January 23, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/prints.html.

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ProQuest is one of the leading information content companies specializing in applications for libraries and research.

See Carnegie Collections, Columbia University, Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, Series III. Grants Box 320, Folder 3 and 4.

See Pamela Spence Richards, “Information Science in Wartime: Pioneer Documentation Activities in World War II”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science 39, no. 5 (1988): 301-306.

It was the precision and flexibility of the Leica camera along with its accessories that were highlighted in promotional material. See also Otto Pretzl, “Die Leica im Dienste der Handschriftenforschung”, Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 49 (1932): 182-187; and J. David Reid, “Microfilm with the 35-Millimeter Candid Camera”, Science 91, no. 2371 (June 7, 1940): 555-556.

Erich Stenger, Die Geschichte der Kleinbildkamera bis zur Leica (Frankfurt am Main: Umschau Verlag, 1949), 64.

Heinrich Schreiber, “Pflicht und Recht der Bibliotheksphotokopie”, Sonderdruck aus Archiv für Urheber—Film und Theaterrecht 7, no. 5/6 (1935): 447.

Coordination des bibliothèques, Guide des services nationaux de renseignements du prêt et des échanges internationaux (Paris: Institut international de coopération intellectuelle, 1933). For a legal history of the library copy, see Monika Dommann, “Papierstau und Informationsfluss: die Normierung der Bibliothekskopie”, Historische Anthropologie 16, no. 1 (2008): 31-54.

A Photostat is the photographic reproduction of a document directly onto sensitized paper instead of using a film negative or glass plate. This method is similar to the later Xerox copying in such that it does not store the latent image on a negative.

U Suzanne Briet, What Is Documentation?, trans, and eds. Ronald E. Day and Laurent Martinet with Hermina G. B. Anghelescu (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2006), 12. Originally published as Qu’est-ce que la documentation? (Paris: Editions documentaires, industrielles et techniques, 1951). [Chapter I: A Technique of Intellectual Work].

  • 28 Born in Amsterdam and educated at the Hague and the University of Amsterdam, Bendikson joined the staff of the Huntington Library in 1916. There he developed a phototechnical laboratory, especially adapted for library problems.
  • 29 For a later use of the microcard, see Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest of Cataloguing Humanity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).
  • 30 See Lodewyk Bendikson, “The Miniature Camera in Library Work”, Photographic Journal 77 (April 1937) 269-271; and Bendikson, “When Filing Cards Take the Place of Books”, Library journal 58 (November 1933): 911-913.
  • 31 The necessity of establishing standards with regard to the film format, in particular 16 and 35 mm, was a pressing issue, one discussed, inter alia, at the 1936 Richmond annual conference of the American Library Association and the 1937 First World Documentation Congress in Paris.
  • 32 Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image”, E-Flux Journal, no. 10 (November 2009), accessed January 23, 2018, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/.
  • 33 Sara J. Piasecki, “Legal Admissibility of Electronic Records as Evidence and Implications for Records Management”, American Archivist 58, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 57.
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