June 21, 2013

Microfilm - The Reel Deal

Entering the New York Public Library I am overcome with a grand feeling of importance. The building, constructed in the late 19th Century, is an astonishing and empowering work of architecture and understandably a major attraction for those visiting the city, however I am here with an ulterior motive.

As I purposefully march past the wide-eyed tourists and down a long marble hallway, I find a sign that reads ‘microforms/editorials’. This particular wing of the public library, which has nearly 53 million items in total, is devoted to the storing of thousands of newspapers, magazines, and publications, ranging from the pre-Civil War era until the present day.

I am at first perplexed at how a relatively small room could possibly hold so much, but this confusion only reveals that this is my first encounter with the genius of microfilm. Microfilm takes documents and reduces them to one twenty-fifth of their size, imprinting them as negatives on long reels. Each reel can hold many hundred imprints of these documents, and so in essence a whole month of daily newspapers can be physically stored in a container smaller than my hand. As a young man who can only faintly remember a world not consumed by the Internet, it is incredibly liberating to be working in the tangible. Trawling through real archives that do not rely on the latest PDF update or monthly subscription.

This is where I am to begin research for our latest project “The Day Before...”, a short piece which intends to explore November 21, 1963, the penultimate day of JFK’s life. I am looking to find an article, a photograph, something that is emblematic of this pivotal moment in history, however seemingly insignificant. What it will be I do not know, but it is there, hidden deep within this reservoir.

I hook up a reel of the New York Herald Tribune to the antiquated machine, and after a few mishaps, it’s rolling, projecting tiny negatives brightly onto the screen. With one hand I manually adjust the zoom, focus, and angle, and with the other I slowly begin moving through the reel.

And like that, I am back in time to 1963.

Pundits argue that a contentious civil rights bill will hamper Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign. A press conference with Defense Secretary McNamara concludes there is an encouraging outlook for objectives in South Vietnam and American advisors can begin to be brought home. And Cassius Clay and Liberace will be on the Jack Paar show on NBC at 10pm tonight! They’re poignant, ironic, and give an incredibly revealing picture of society at this time.

For those of you historically inclined, who are in need of research material, photographs, or are simply filled with curiosity, I encourage you to pay a visit to your public library and if you’re lucky there will be a wealth of microfilm resources for you to delve into. It really is more rewarding than a Google search.