Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Clarke Historical Library Microfilm Project Endowment

by Frank Boles

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Clarke Historical Library Microfilm Program in 2017 the library is hoping to raise $50,000 to create an endowment supporting the ongoing work of preserving and making available to researchers Michigan’s newspaper heritage. We hope you will help us reach that goal. Much of our state’s local history hangs in the balance.

The Clarke Historical Library started the Microfilm Project in October 1967 after the staff raised the funds to purchase a microfilm camera. Director John Cumming had begun discussing a project to film Michigan newspapers in 1964. He recognized that Michigan’s newspapers represented the most complete documentation regarding the state’s history. Newspaper reporters often talk about writing “the first draft of history.” They’re right. If local newspapers are not preserved, the majority of the state’s local history would be lost.

The money to undertake the project did not come easily. With great determination, Cumming chased after every funding source he, or anyone else, could think of to support the project. At one point Cumming admitted he was disheartened. Nevertheless he continued and eventually the money was found.

When the money was finally assembled, one of the members of the Clarke Board asked Cumming when the project would be done. Cumming answered that as far as he could tell the need was endless, but the funding would last about five years. Cumming was right on both points. Many millions of newspaper pages were quietly rotting away and the money ran out long before the need was met.

To keep the project alive, the library staff made a unique, and sometimes challenging, decision to make the microfilm project self-funded. Unlike other library activities, the microfilm project would have to pay its own way, becoming for practical purposes a not-for-profit business. And perhaps to everyone’s surprise, the plan worked and it continues to do so to the very day.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, change in the Microfilm Project seemed inevitable. Many said that electronic media would replace microfilm. Microfilm was old fashioned, hard to use, and generally inconvenient. Online resources were available round-the-clock, allowing for use at a time that met the researchers’ schedule. But a funny thing happened in the digital world. Scanned material proved to be a wonderful mechanism for distributing information to researchers, but a not very good means of preserving that information. Frequent data migration, new software, and the lack of standardized digital preservation formats led to a world where online sources became the preferred way to share historical newspapers, but a preservation nightmare. Microfilm continued to be the preferred solution for the long haul.

A Clarke employee inspects microfilm for scanning

The Clarke’s microfilm program embraced the world of digital content distribution. Beginning in 2008, the Library began to convert newspapers on microfilm into digital formats. Some of these appeared on our own website - https://www.cmich.edu/library/Pages/Digital-Collections.aspx. Others, with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities, were made available on the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America - http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/. Still other projects were undertaken with the assistance of other libraries or historical societies, which purchased digitizing services from the Clarke and then made the digital images available either in-house at their library or through their own website. While we have embraced the digital world, we also continue to crank out good, old-fashioned, long-lived microfilm. In the last fiscal year (2015-2016) the Library produced over 460,000 digital scans. The Library staff also produced 123 reels of microfilm, approximately 120,000 images.

You would think at this rate we would soon run out of things to film and scan. But today John Cumming’s words about an “endless” number of newspapers still rings true. Although there may be an end someday, the end of newspaper preservation on microfilm and digitization of Michigan’s newspaper heritage is nowhere in sight.

Our ability to do carry out this enormous endeavor on a cost-recovery basis has become seriously challenged by the ever-increasing costs of both microfilm and digitization hardware and software. When the project began a good, reliable Kodak microfilm camera cost about $20,000 and could be relied on to work for what seemed forever -- the Clarke’s two Kodak cameras lasted about 40 years. Contemporary microfilm cameras cost nearly four times as much and have a life expectancy of about eight to ten years. Digital equipment is equally expensive and short lived. A microfilm scanner costs approximately $50,000 and has a life expectancy tied to ever-changing software.

Microfilm cabinets in the Clarke
In addition to the initial purchase price, these complex machines require ongoing service, paid for by annual service contracts. Service contracts for hardware and software today cost the library over $20,000 a year. But to go without the contracts is even more expensive because “a la carte” service is only available from a limited number of sources. For example, our current microfilm camera’s certified maintenance is only available from two places – Maryland and Utah. Without a service contract, we would begin a “service call” by paying the air fare for the technician to fly to Michigan, if one can be spared from clients with service contracts.

To be able to continue to offer relatively low priced microfilm and digitization services that primarily preserve and make accessible Michigan’s rich newspaper heritage we are asking that you join us in creating and operating endowment to celebrate the Microfilm Project’s golden anniversary. Hardware, software, and service contracts don’t grab much attention in the world of grants and giving. But like roads, the electric grid, water pipes and other infrastructure projects, they are ignored at our peril. The infrastructure that preserves Michigan’s newspaper heritage needs constant care and regular improvement. Please help make it possible by making a gift to the Clarke Historical Library Microfilm Project Endowment. Tax deductible gifts can be sent to the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859 or they can be given on-line. Click here for more information about on-line gifts.