Here's something very different. I wrote this blog post for the 2021 CONUL Library Assistant Blog Post competition. CONUL is the Consortium of National and University Libraries in Ireland. A few years ago, I'd come third in the same competition.
I put a massive amount of work into this blog post. I researched it for weeks. I really wanted to win. And I was actually quite confident that I would win, or at least be placed.
In the end, not only did I not win, not only was I not placed, but I wasn't even get one of the three "honourable mentions" in the results. I was crushed. I'm not being ironic!
Last week UCD Library published it in the internal staff bulletin. Only one of my colleagues mentioned it to me.
It was a pretty humbling experience overall. It may be a silly vanity, but I always yearn for my writing to get some recognition in my workplace. I've worked there for twenty years and, in many ways, it's my village. The library did acquire my book but only one of my colleagues has ever borrowed it.
Oh, well. Here is the blog post. I thought I would be original and write about the very opposite of cutting-edge technology. Perhaps that was my downfall, or perhaps the other blog posts were just better! As Frank says, that's life...
Some years ago, I was giving a library tour to some undergraduates. The demeanour of the group was (as usual) polite and attentive, but hardly enthusiastic. As we were passing the microform cabinets, I decided for some reason to depart from my usual routine and to point them out.
I was surprised by the undergraduates’ reaction. They suddenly came to life and began rummaging through the cabinets, examining the microforms, laughing and chatting. Presumably, to these “digital natives” who grew up with the internet, microform was a complete novelty.
In today’s technological landscape, microform readers can appear as quaint as a telephone box on a city street. In our digitized world, are these analogue workhorses doomed to disappear?
In the 2014 article “Microform: Not Extinct Yet”, from Library Collections, Acquisitions and Technical Services, the authors list some of the reasons libraries keep and maintain their microforms: that “too many materials will never be online”; that digitized newspapers sometimes omit features such as images, ads, and letters to the newspaper; that digital holdings can be volatile and that publishers might remove material; and that properly stored microform has a life expectancy of up to five hundred years (Caudle et al., 2014, p.3). They conclude: “Is microform in danger of becoming extinct? Not yet. Microform still has a place in the library by providing a variety of materials for researchers in a stable, space-saving format”(ibid., p.10).
So how do things stand seven years after that article? I canvassed several university libraries in Ireland and abroad, enquiring about their views on the future of the technology and reader demand for microforms.
Paula Norris, Multimedia Librarian of Trinity College Library, told me that usage had “declined dramatically” in the last few years, to two or three users per month before the Covid pandemic hit. Shauna McDermott of DCU Library revealed that demand for microforms had fallen so much (a few requests per year) that they recently repurposed their microform rooms into autism-friendly study spaces, though “microform is something we might revisit in future”. Bill Murphy of TU Dublin Bolton Street reported that the microform reader there was “very rarely used”, while Sarah Smith in Aungier Street said of their own microform reader: “Assume it still works, hasn’t been used in the longest time”. Debra McCann of UCD’s James Joyce Library estimates that the microform reader is typically used “once or twice a week, not daily”.
Mary Dundon of the Glucksman Library, University of Limerick, said that “we do not have too many resources left on microfiche or microform”, that they are “very rarely requested”, and that their new microfilm reader “gets very little use except for our HR department for reading old HR files!”. Geraldine Curtin of NUI Galway writes that the Special Collections Reading Room receives about one microform user per week. She believes microform has a future as not all resources are available digitally and that microform can “serve as a very useful backup when the technology fails”.
Siobhán O’Donovan of the National Library reports that “microfilm is still very heavily used by National Library readers”, and that “microfilm definitely has a short-term future in the National Library”.
Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian of University College Cork, has some stark figures when it comes to readers’ demand for microform; in 2008/2009, there were 1114 users of microform, which steadily dropped to 276 in 2017/2018. However, she sees a future for microform in the university as the library’s Scan and Deliver system, whereby users can be sent material scanned from microform, has proved quite popular, and some databases are too expensive and too rarely used to replace their microform equivalents.
Dr Conor Mulvagh, Associate Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, offered a researcher’s perspective on the continuing importance of microform: “The microfilm resources in UCD are extremely useful for research. The range of materials covered in our collections still remains significantly ahead of what is available online and especially ahead of what UCD currently subscribes to…despite the fact that this is no longer 'sexy' technology, it is incredibly important to both faculty and graduate research at UCD as well as for visiting readers and in many instances even where online archives exist, the work can be done faster and more readily on UCD microfilms.”
While there is no indication that microforms face imminent extinction from university libraries, some institutions are choosing to retire them as usage declines. This could make microforms a relative rarity in ten years’ time, but with a shelf-life of five hundred years, their real legacy belongs to the future.