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Guide to Microforms

Learn about Aperture Cards, Microfilm, Microfiche and more


Microforms are defined as a microreproduction of any type of picture or document to be viewed, stored, or printed. Generally, microform images and documents are stored at 25 percent of their original size on film or paper. Microforms are common in libraries and other archives, where space is limited but information is great.

Microforms first got their start in 1839, when John Benjamin Dancer created the first micro-photographs using the famed Daguerreotype process of printing. Dancer then moved on to a wet collodion process. He did not think of his work as anything more than a novelty, and did not properly document his work for posterity. In 1851, two men named James Glaisher and John Herschel suggested microphotographs as a means of archiving.

The format really gained some public ground when they were officially supported by the annual meeting of the American Library Association in 1936. At this time, they were fully endorsed by the organization and came into common use, though the Library of Congress had been using microforms since 1927. By 1940, microfilms were developed and the rest is history.


  • Microfiche: 4inx5in bits of film that reduces documents to about 0.25% of their normal size.
  • Microfilm: reel of film which requires a special camera to reduce a document to 1% of its original size.
  • Aperture card: a punched card that has a cutout in which a piece of microfilm is placed.

Image Creation

Special cameras and equipment must be utilized to create microforms. To capture the image or data, a planetary camera is positioned above the document. A flow camera moves the film smoothly through the camera in order to expose the film to a reduced size.

Color film is expensive and is therefore not as common. Generally, it is made from high resolution panchromatic monochrome film. The types of cameras generally used to produce microforms are roll film cameras, flow roll film cameras, microfiche cameras, or computer output microfilm.

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Libraries are one of the biggest users of microforms out there. Archiving old newspapers and magazines became commonplace in the 1960s, as libraries were nearly doubling in size due to the newspapers and publications in archive. Storing old, deteriorating periodicals on microcards saved space and preserved antique texts. It also made these publications more readily available to library visitors, as they did not have to worry about the delicacy of the paper or condition of the pages.

One of the most interesting uses of microforms was during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Tours was able to communicate to Paris via pigeon post, and since documents were much too bulky for the pigeons, information was stored on microcards. This also prevented information from being intercepted, since microforms are virtually unreadable to the naked eye.


There are many advantages to using microforms. One of the main advantages is space. Since documents can be reduced so much, it's an ideal storage solution for many businesses and organizations. Thousands of pages of data can be stored in a space that would normally hold much less.

It is also much cheaper to distribute microforms than paper versions. Many types, bulk discounts can be applied to microforms, making it easy to pass around.

Microforms are incredibly durable. When stored correctly, they are an ideal archive solution and can withstand years (up to 500) of storage. They are virtually indestructible and can withstand wear and tear very easily. Since they are not intrinsically worth very much, like a computer, microforms are rarely stolen and are very simple to conceal.


Microform - Aperture Cards

While incredibly cheap and easy to store, microforms are useless unless the viewer has the proper microform viewer. They are indistinguishable to the naked eye, and proper microform projectors can be expensive and difficult to use. If one is not available, microforms cannot be viewed nor copied.

Although microforms have a very long storage life, they are prone to deterioration. The quality of the text or images degrade over time, unlike digital formats which stay in perfect condition. The film on microforms can also deteriorate in certain climates and conditions.


For more information on microforms and where they are used, visit the following resources:

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