Beyond the Microfilm Reader: Digital Availability of NARA’s Microfilm Publications

Today’s post is by Denise Henderson, Director of the Digitization Division for Research Services.

It has been a long-time objective to systematically digitize the microfilm publications located in National Archives and Records Administration (NARA’s) Microfilm Reading Rooms. Less than a quarter of the publications are currently digitized and available online. Most of those were digitized by NARA’s digitization partners and are available on their websites as well as in the National Archives Catalog. The majority of the 4,000+ publications – that reproduce records of high research value and/or fragile, at-risk materials – are still only available the way they were decades ago: a researcher must visit our research room and use a microfilm reader. If a researcher cannot make it onsite, digital copies are available for purchase.

people sitting in stalls using microfilm readers
National Archives Microfilm Reading Room, August 1957 (NAID 12169058)

With evolving researcher expectations, we understand that providing free digital access to our microfilm publications is a necessity; now more than ever. Since NARA’s microfilm publication program started over 70 years ago, NARA staff created publications that contained reproductions of records from over 150 record groups. The publications cover numerous subjects such as diplomacy and foreign relations; justice and law enforcement; land issues; military and intelligence matters; race relations; communications, immigration, and on and on. The records reproduced in the publications contain a wealth of information and are of immense research value. While generations of researchers have spent hours winding and rewinding microfilm reels on our readers in our Reading Rooms, digitization helps to democratize the research process and offers research opportunities for a new generation of scholars.

Digitizing microfilm can be more efficient than digitizing original textual records. Over the last 18 months, we successfully capitalized on this efficiency. With virtually all digitization activities suspended due to NARA’s ongoing facility closures during the pandemic, we were able to continue to digitize microfilm as part of an existing contract with an offsite vendor. In addition, we were able to do limited scanning in-house thanks to multi-tasking staff who remained onsite to work on critical, time-sensitive projects (one of those projects begins with “1950” and ends with “Census”). Once the microfilm was scanned, we leveraged remote workflows to allow our imaging technicians to process the raw files before our archival staff prepared the images and metadata for inclusion in the National Archives Catalog. These efforts allowed us to continue to make records available and connect with customers at a time when the vast majority of our staff was working at home, our research rooms were closed, and researchers could not physically access our holdings.

As we continue to maximize online access to NARA holdings, we plan to accelerate the digitization of microfilm publications (as well as accessioned microfilm) and make them all available in the National Archives Catalog. Since Fiscal Year 2018, NARA has digitized and added over 700 microfilm publications to the Catalog. To see all of the NARA-digitized microfilm publications now digitally available, download our list of NARA-Digitized Microfilm Publications Available in the National Archives Catalog (list current as of January 15, 2022).

There’s more to come this year including publications from RG 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; RG 33, Records of the Extension Service; RG 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration; RG 165, Records of the War Department General and Special Staff; and RG 242, National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized.

Information about NARA microfilm publications can be found in the Microfilm Catalog. The Microfilm Catalog now reflects a publication’s digital availability. If the publication has been digitized and is available in the National Archives Catalog, there is a link to the catalog description in the “Publication Summary” screen in the Microfilm Catalog.

screenshot of microfilm catalog w/publication summary
Publication Summary in the NARA Microfilm Catalog showing link for digital availability

If a publication was digitized by a partner, that is indicated with a link to NARA’s Microfilm Publication and Original Records Digitized by Our Digitization Partners webpage. As partner-digitized microfilm is added to the National Archives Catalog, we will be updating those links to point to the National Archives Catalog.

To search for a microfilm publication in the National Archives catalog, simply enter the microfilm publication number in the search bar. These numbers typically start with either an M, T, A, or P. When the search results return, use the filter on the left side of the screen and click “Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects” to access the descriptions with attached images. Alternatively, you can choose the Advanced Search function, limit your search to Archival Materials Online, and enter the microfilm publication number in the Search Term box.

advanced search screen of National Archives Catalog

In the search results, thumbnails of the images will display:

search results in National Archives catalog with thumbnails of digital images

We think we’re on the right track with our microfilm digitization efforts…at least based on a comment we received from a researcher in March 2021:

 “…I found another document that has only been referenced in the newspapers but not the actual document, so that was even more awesome! Having microfilm rolls accessible at the online archives has been beyond helpful with the COVID constraints everyone is experiencing. The CA State Library has some of the rolls (RG 75 California Superintendency) that I needed to review, but the public reading rooms have been closed for a year now. If you have the opportunity to convey to the powers that be who decided to increase the online accessibility to NARA microfilm collections, please let them know there are MANY, many historians, graduate students and others that are VERY grateful NARA is spending the funding and human resources to provide access in this manner!”

Our current digitization priorities are based on use, Subject Matter Expertise (SME) areas, and requests by staff. We are always interested in hearing feedback from our researchers about what they would like to see digitized so if you have specific microfilm publications that you would like digitized, please leave a comment, or contact: digitization@nara.gov, so that we can include them in our prioritization effort.


A Note about Quality

While the microfilm publications are not the original records, oftentimes, they are the next best thing. In some rare cases (like RG 33, Records of the Extension Service), the microfilm is the only thing. The quality of the images from digitized microfilm publications varies across all of the microfilm publications and depends on the quality of the original filming. Our imaging technicians make necessary adjustments to render the best image possible before we put it online but these adjustments do not always improve the image(s). We know that some of the images are not as good as if we digitized the original record. Having something online, however, is sometimes better than nothing at all. We are using the results of our microfilm digitization to inform and target future efforts to digitize from the original records.

One thought on “Beyond the Microfilm Reader: Digital Availability of NARA’s Microfilm Publications

  1. Great work, Denise. I was curious if there are plans to digitize the microfilm that is kept in the ice cube in Lenexa?

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