Old technology wins out

If there is  one thing I hate more than confusing new technology, it is confusing old technology. While it can sometimes be a bit confusing trying to get misbehaving PDFs to print, that’s nothing compared to doing battle with an ageing microfilm reader/printer.

So, when I saw an email this morning headed “Microfilm…” my heart sank. Someone had some microfilm he needed to view and wondered if I could help. My first question was “Is it microfilm or microfiche?”.  I really hoped it would be microfiche – fiche is just so much easier, and the little readers are less of a fiddle. But he confirmed the worst “It is is microfilm”. I had to confess that we did indeed have a microfilm reader, but it was ancient, had not been used for years and was now languishing in our store.

There was a time when a microfilm reader was a useful thing to have – all UK PhD theses were microfilmed by the British Library so if ever we needed a copy of a thesis we would receive it on microfilm. We also have a cupboard full of old journals on microfilm, though they are rarely looked at. Since e-theses took off, with EThOS, we don’t see microfilm. The reader had not been used for some time so at the last clear-out we stuck it down in the store.

We went over to the store together to try out the machine. The microfilm had been sent to him from a library in Moscow. It was tightly rolled up but not on a spool, so that was going to be interesting. I reacquainted myself with our machine and its various knobs and buttons. It dated back to the 1970s or 1980s when it would have seemed the height of modern technology. I switched it on and the power light came on, always a good sign, and things moved when I turned the main knob. But there was no illumination inside.  I realised the bulb must have given up the ghost.  Much as I might want to get it fixed, ready for when someone wanted to use it again in 10 years’ time, I could not justify the likely expense so I had to admit failure.

The best I could offer was to point him to another library. He has a connection with UCL and was planning a visit, so I checked out the UCL Library website and found they have a few microfilm readers/scanners, of a rather more recent vintage than ours. He seemed happy enough with that outcome.

While walking back from the store he had told me that the microfilm contained a book by Setyonov, a Russian neurophysiologist from the 19th century. Knowing that we had a good collection of early physiology texts I looked the name up in our catalogue but found nothing. On a whim I put the name into the UCL Library catalogue but found nothing there. Googling the name came up with nothing, which seemed a bit odd so I tried “Russian neurophysiologist” and immediately brought up Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov. Realising my spelling error I rushed back to our catalogue and found we did indeed have a copy of a four-volume work by Sechenov on the physiology of the nervous system, and what’s more it was on the shelves over in the store.

The book on the microfilm was Fiziologia nervnoy sistemypublished in St. Petersburg in 1866. The book I now had in my hands was published in 1952, 47 years after Sechenov’s death. It was entirely in Russian, so that even the bibliographic information was indecipherable to me. Luckily there was an insert in French, saying that the volumes contained works by Sechenov, Pavlov, Vvedenski and others. I figured it was some kind of reprint of the 1866 book, or perhaps a later edition.

My enquirer after microfilm readers seemed pleased to see the books.  I am waiting to hear from his Russian-speaking colleague whether they are exactly what he wanted. If they are, then I will chalk up a win for old technology (‘books’) over old-new technology (‘microfilm’). And next time you want to read some microfilm, don’t call me.  Our machine is busted.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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3 Responses to Old technology wins out

  1. John Gilbey says:

    Once, in a remote field station far from such delights as microfiche readers, I resorted to reading a set of conference papers on fiche under a microscope. By the time I had finished, I would have been quite happy to have walked to the conference and back instead!

  2. Frank says:

    That sounds like a cruel and unusual punishment. I thought reading A4 PDFs on a Kindle was bad, but you definitely win in the ‘painful reading’ stakes.

  3. John Gilbey says:

    It was mostly worth it to work in a 12th century manor house, in an office with Tudor oak panelling, a granite fire place and with a view of Dartmoor…. Nice venue… 🙂