Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What's the next microfiche?

I'm entering my last semester of my MLIS, so I'm just beginning my internship. Yesterday, I got a very thorough tour of the academic library where I'll be doing my fieldwork, including the periodicals room where they keep all the microforms. Said the head of reference, "Of course, we can't wait to get rid of all of this."

How unloved is a format when even librarians are eager to toss it? As far as I can tell, microfilm and microfiche are charmless and universally loathed; even Nicholson Baker wouldn't defend them. Microforms lack both the history of true primary documents and the search functions of digital documents, and they're terribly unwieldy.

Other evolutionary dead-ends don't induce this urge to purge: Betamax and laser discs at least have their defenders who claim their technical superiority to VHS or DVD.

But it would be the height of arrogance to assume that microforms are historically unique. History repeats itself, and we're going to make this mistake again. So what is the current format or pratice that patrons are reluctant - and someday will simply refuse - to use?

My pet peeve is Word documents in websites, that require downloading instead of embedded viewing like an Adobe Acrobat document, but I'm not sure that rises to the microfilm level. Any other nominations?


Digital Film Solutions said...

Your right - microfilm and microfiche are generally hated by all!

Digital Film Solutions specializes in the conversion of microfilm and microfiche to digital - so that microfilm records can be accessed via PC rather than reader printer.


bmljenny said...

I agree from a usability standpoint micro formats are the pits. But libraries are both about use and the very long view, although maybe not within the same library. The one good thing about microformats is that all you need to use them is optics. Light and glass. There's no file format concerns, software or hardware to migrate (ask S&E about their 5.25" diskette collection!), just what kind of lens and light source is needed. Of the microformats, cards (micro-opaques) are probably the most reviled, but also probably the formats that would last the longest if we don't throw them out. 1000 years from now, will we be able to read a TIFF? I bet (I hope!) we'll still be able to make a lens.

Laura Wimberley said...

Jenny, that's a really good point (and the reason I didn't delete the kinda spammy first comment). I was getting all of my training at this library from a reference perspective - one specifically catering to undergraduates - and so I didn't even think about preservation goals.

I suppose I was assuming, somewhere deep down, that the ideal would be to have a sort of Project Gutenberg type of usability/preservation resolution, where the original, precious, first edition document is kept in an archive someplace like the Library of Congress or the Bodleian, and then copies are widely disseminated in constantly migrated file formats. For something like the Landmarks of Science, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable aspiration.

But a) that's not feasible when the original is disintegrating newsprint; and b) it's not a reasonable hope for the more specialized resources. Thanks for the balance check on our mission.

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Libri & Libertas: Books & Freedom in a Web 2.0 World by Laura H. Wimberley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 3.0 United States License.