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Microform . . . Macro Impact!

When thinking microfilm, surely you imagine sinister and shocking state and government secrets hidden in some safety deposit box or church pew that is transported between secret agents in a pumpkin or in a heel of their shoes. Besides “spies like us” covert operations, microfilm is used to store and preserve all manner of images and documents for transmission, printing, studying and reading.

Developing microfilm at the Library of Congress. 1942 The earliest known photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln. 1846 or 1847

Using the Daguerreotype process, John Benjamin Dancer, in 1839, was one of the first to produce micro-photographs. He continued to develop and perfect the procedure over the next decade but ultimately dismissed his work as a personal hobby and left no documentation. That microphotography could be no more than a novelty was an opinion shared by the 1858 Dictionary of Photography, which called the process “somewhat trifling and childish.”

Microphotography was first suggested as a document preservation method in the early 1850s. Developments in microphotography continued through the next decades, but it was not until the turn of the century that its potential for practical usage was seized by a wider audience. In 1896, Canadian engineer Reginald A. Fessenden suggested microforms as a compact solution to engineers' unwieldy but frequently consulted materials. In 1940, the format most broadly used today—microfilm—was developed.

The Library of Congress has actively acquired microforms since the early 1940s. A separate reading room was established in 1953 for the custody and service of the Library's general microform collection. In 1972, it was named the Microform Reading Room to indicate the variety of microformats in the collection that now numbers some six million pieces in hundreds of distinct collections.

The materials in microform vary widely not only in the nature of the original materials microfilmed--books, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts, dissertations, dramatic works, government documents, etc.-- but also in date, place of publication, language, and subject matter. While a number of these items duplicate items in the Library's print collections, most are available only in microform. Some of the most frequently used collections are Dime Novels, History of Photography, Black Literature, Russian History and Culture and the Doctoral Dissertation Series.

The Library holds a daguerreotype collection of more than 725 photographs dating from 1839 to 1864. A guide to the daguerreotype process can be found at the Prints and Photographs Division.

A. Developing microfilm at the Library of Congress. 1942. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-DIG-fsa-8d05575 (digital file from original) and LC-USW3-004150-D (b&w film neg.); Call Nos.: LC-USW3- 004150-D [P&P] and LOT 207 (corresponding photographic print)

B. The earliest known photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln. 1846 or 1847. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-USZC4-6189 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ6-2094 (b&w film copy neg. post-1992),
LC-USZ6-300 (b&w film copy neg. pre-1992, after 1959 cleaning and restoration?) and
LC-USZ62-12458 (b&w film copy neg. pre-1992); Call No.: DAG no. 1223