As one part of this grant project, we are digitizing reels of microfilm and then using different techniques to try to gather item-level metadata about the materials. One challenge with digitizing microfilm is that the end result can be just one big bunch of images with very little metadata to guide users. The resulting images can be quite impenetrable. We are trying to address that challenge by interconnecting finding aids with the images and extracting information from the handwritten documents.
We chose three sets of presidential papers in microfilm—The James Monroe Papers in Virginia Repositories, Millard Fillmore Papers, and the Papers of Rutherford Birchard Hayes. For each set, we are trying to track down the master reels for the microfilm. The master reels are the original reels, usually created as master negatives. In order to preserve them, the master reels are used very rarely. From those reels, the service reels are created. The service reels are those that a person might check out from the library.
We would like to use the master reels for the digitization because they are generally the most pristine copies of the materials. Nan Card, the Curator of Manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, has kindly offered us the use of the master reels of the Hayes Papers. Similarly, Cynthia Van Ness, the director of the Library and Archives at the Buffalo History Museum, is willing to let us use either master reels or pristine service copies to digitize.
For the third set of microfilm, The James Monroe Papers in Virginia Repositories, I have been having a hard time tracking down where the master reels are located. The University of Virginia’s Alderman Library undertook creating the Monroe Papers microfilm in 1969. The papers mostly focused on public documents (such as county court house records) during Monroe’s legal career and time in office (not just as president but also as a Virginia statesman and governor). It also included privately held letters. The National Historical Publications Commission (now the National Historical Publications and Records Commission), a federal agency, funded the project.
When I started trying to track down the master reels, I began first with the librarians at UVA’s Alderman Library and then contacted the NHPRC. I learned that neither organization held the master reels of the collection. Eventually I found that a private company, Primary Source Media, held the master reels of the Monroe collection. According to its website, it has been building one of the world’s largest microform archives for the last 40 years. When I contacted the company, I was told that it would cost me $2600 to order the 13 reels of microfilm.
I do not understand how Primary Source Media ended up with the master reels of this microfilm. The creation of The James Monroe Papers in Virginia Repositories was undertaken by a public university and paid for with federal funds. And most of the records in the collection are government records which should be in the public domain. I understand that the microfilm collection becomes a new work and is subject to different copyright but what I don’t understand is how these master reels have ended up with a private company. Can anyone shed light on this? Is it common practice for master reels of microfilm to be bought by private companies and then sold back to the public that funded their creation?
Ironically, the guide to the Monroe microfilm collection has a quote from Thomas Jefferson that states, “The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use, in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”