Microforms and Scholarship: Another View


Reading Dr. Michael Stoller’s article in the Winter 1989 issue of Microform Review, I was reminded of a national survey about the needs of American scholars for photocopied foreign research materials which was sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and the results published in 1964. Librarians and scholars in such disciplines as English, history, languages, art history, musicology, and area studies programs—the principal users of photocopied sources—were polled for the purpose of establishing a consensus and setting priorities. Respondents assigned top priority to the photocopying of archival.sources, “especially those of Western and Southern Europe and of Latin America” (p. 85). In feet, the report concluded that “American scholars see the bringing of resources of the Old World to the New as the principal role for scholarly photocopying” (p. 86). The report also made recommendations with regard to adequate planning, involvement of experienced researchers in the selection of sources to be photocopied, creation of finding lists, etc. Before the appearance of this report, scholars and libraries had already engaged in large scale microfilming projects abroad from the end of the Second World War onwards, especially in the 1960s, the golden age of microfilming. The report served to give order, discourage duplication, set priorities, and encourage a more rational approach to collection building. In the summer of 1965, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress established the Center for the Coordination of Foreign Manuscript Copying in an effort to promote coordination and cooperation in planning and executing microfilming projects and avoid unnecessary duplication and expense. The Center’s News from the Center, issued twice a year beginning in 1967, provided information about various projects and fostered cooperation. Unfortunately it ceased publication with the Spring 1970 issue, not for lack of interest, but presumably as a victim of cost cutting measures in education enacted by the Nixon administration. Despite this setback, considered temporary at that time, historians continued to envisage expanded microfilming programs in the future. In a 1972 collective volume of essays, 20 leading historians reflected on the historiography of their areas of specialization over the past 50 years, noting changes in methodology and ideology. The eminent Renaissance authority, Felix Gilbert, singled out the revolutionary role of microfilming in changing the way scholars conducted research in European archives. He also asked his colleagues to consider the intriguing possibility that depositing sets of microfilmed series of documents in libraries, accompanied by transcription of difficult to read texts and related notes, may be more cost effective in terms of effort, efficiency, and expense than the publication of multivolume editions of the documents—and just as useful to scholars. Moreover, Gilbert argued that microfilming has given American scholars an advantage often not possessed by their European colleagues: