On the Pedagogical Utility of Microfilm

In 1997, 7th grade reading teacher Maudie Jones remarked upon the great educational value of historical newspapers stored on microfilm, what she called “time capsules buried in the library.” Beyond documenting events of the past, she explains, these treasures introduce students to an historical world through editorials, advertising, and even the writing style and language choices of the past.1 Jones was right that historical newspapers offer more than simple reporting from the past. The authors, editors, and publishers of newspapers made conscious decisions about what to include and how to arrange content on each page in an effort to sell copies to their target readers—important considerations for historians using these sources in their examination of the past.

Today, historical newspapers are among the most popular archival documents to be digitized and sold in keyword searchable databases. Digitization makes these newspapers more accessible while at the same time facilitates new analytical techniques. So what now with microfilm? Setting aside its enduring value for preservation, what can we say about this transition of formats from a pedagogical standpoint? Two factors seem pertinent: students’ relative familiarity with these different formats, and historical methodology.

On the question of familiarity, two students’ reactions to microfilm as a format are instructive. In my content analysis lesson, I wanted to demonstrate the value of newspapers for this methodology, but we were purposefully “analog” during the session and, lacking original papers, I didn’t want to distract from that with digitized collections. So I had a reel of microfilm on hand and unspooled a few feet for demonstration. One student exclaimed with delight, “I’ve seen that on TV!”

In another encounter, this time during a research consultation with a history honors student, I tried to explain how using microfilm is a great way to experience the fullness of historical newspapers. She reacted by asking how much the microfilm company was paying me to say such nice things about a format she clearly disdained.

These two responses to microfilm as a format are, I feel, representative of varying attitudes a digital generation might take to this “old school” technology. In the first instance, I saw curiosity in an object that had not yet been experienced personally, like a tourist visiting the reenactments at Colonial Williamsburg. The sheer novelty of the format was enough to capture the student’s attention. The second student, in contrast, dismissed the format as tedious and retrograde, even intimating my recommendation was bought and paid for. For her, there seemed little point in revisiting a supposed dark ages of research.

How can the former attitude be harnessed and the latter overcome when microfilm is either the only or the best means of access to valuable historical newspapers? I believe the answer lies in my second factor for consideration: historical methodology. If not trained to read historical documents with an eye toward its source, intended audience, and broader context, the typical student will engage with newspapers as he would with any other text: basic reading comprehension.2 For the novice historian, reading newspapers is often a fact-finding mission in order to learn the truth of what happened. And if that is the goal, given the choice between entering keywords in a database to hone in on a relevant page or scrolling through dimly lit film for hours, of course the student will select the digitized content.

If the student is taught proper historical methods, however, and learns to engage with historical texts in order to ascertain the author’s motives and intended audience while seeking context and corroboration, then the value of scrolling through newspapers page by page, day by day becomes apparent. Granted reading newspapers on microfilm will remain a laborious and time-consuming endeavor, for students and professional historians alike. And I don’t advocate including microfilm in library or history instruction simply for its own sake. Instead, it can be a useful vehicle for teaching historical methods and potentially help students recognize the need to apply those methods regardless of format, especially in a digital environment that encourages quick, superficial encounters with historical text.


1Maudie Jones, “Time Capsules Buried in the Library,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 40, no. 7 (April 1997): 564.
2See chapter 3 in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

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