Books in the age of film

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the idea of using mechanical recording instead of manual copying techniques as an aid to research as well as for documentation and administrative purposes became more widely discussed, owing to a seminal essay co-authored by Paul Otlet, the founder of the International Institute of Bibliography, and the Belgian physicist and engineer Robert Goldschmidt. Published in four different journals in 1906 and 1907, the essay addressed a new form of book: the microphotographic book. At first, the essay consisted of only nine pages, contained no or little illustrations, and was circulated mainly among likeminded librarians. Over a period of nearly thirty years, however, it was revised and republished several times, illustrated and translated in various languages, which hints at its importance.

Otlet and Goldschmidt named several isolated attempts during the nineteenth century to put microphotography into practice, but it was only now, the authors claimed, that it was ready to alleviate the inconveniences of the printed book, namely its rigid form and the cost of producing and storing it, as well as its proliferation. Because of the radical increase in the number of scientific publications, especially scientific journals and documentation in general, as a consequence of the thematic and geographical expansion of the sciences, “books these days tend towards the photographic form.” The future of the book, according to Otlet and Goldschmidt, was photography. The essay was also driven by Robert Goldschmidt’s invention of the Bibliophote around 1910, a reproduction system operating with blank film sheets (similar to microfiche), and by its commercialization through the company Société Anonyme La Photoscopie. Goldschmidt, who acted as company director, had the engineering skills, Otlet, the network and institutional recognition in the library world.

From the point of view of scientific research, microphotography promised not only remote access to more, or previously unavailable or unpublished material, but also to replace the external or interlibrary loan. It facilitated the flow of things. In addition, the authors imagined it as a method of duplicating and sharing inventories and card catalogues and—to some extent—of preserving library holdings, especially easily perishable material, such as newspapers. Otlet and Goldschmidt also put forward the idea of using the medium for dissecting and recomposing on a single filmstrip bits of information from different sources, be they text, images, graphs, etc., resonated with the more general tendency around 1900 towards increased flexibility and agency in handling and creating information and knowledge. For instance, they produced and distributed a large series of 35 mm filmstrips covering topics as diverse as the history of costumes, statistics on the nascent automobile industry, or news from around the world on a particular day. Promoted under the flashy title Encyclopdia Universalis Mundaneum, these “microfilms” were motivated by the idea that, through the roll film, photography could be used to bring together and edit the wealth of available information and that, ultimately, images would outstrip text in importance.

Between 1906 until the Goldschmidt’s death in 1935, the Bibliophote was presented on many numerous occasions such as at the 1906 Congrès international de la documentation photographique in Marseille, the 1913 conference of the Library Institute, organized by Melvil Dewey in New York, the 7th International Congress for Photography in London in 1928, and picked up by several newspapers. The Bibliophote underwent several changes in function, it failed commercially, as did the small-format projectors, Cinescope and Photoscope. However, the main concepts that would traverse the history and narrative of microphotography as a scientific aid were established through this essay. These may be summarized as mobility and versatility, standardization and rationalization, preservation and diffusion.

On a New Form of the Book. The Microphotographic Book

All contemporary developments in the external form and substance of the book, the way it is written and set in type and the way its subject is organised, have an important place in bibliographic studies. These studies should not be limited to an examination of the past alone. Like other branches of knowledge, the Science of the Book should lead to practical applications. In addition to history and theory, it should be concerned with the ways in which its object (volume, journal or newspaper; text or image) can continually be improved. As far as its external form is concerned, the Book – which successively has been cut in stone, baked on brick, painted on papyrus, hand-written on parchment, engraved on wood and reproduced by printing and lithography on paper – nowadays is tending to assume a photographic form. Until now this development has been limited to the illustrated matter of the book. Such a “pictorial” limitation is not justified. This development can be extended to the text itself. What has been achieved in this area? What can realistically be expected in the future? This is what this preliminary communication is about.


All progress, all reform is the result of a need of which we become aware and for which a clear expression emerges as a result of the criticisms that can be made of anything ongoing. As far as the book is concerned, despite admirable technological progress since the fifteenth century, all is far from perfect.

The book is still heavy to handle and takes up a relatively large amount of space. On average, one square metre of shelf space 35 centimetres deep is needed to hold 100 volumes, without taking into account aisles between stacks and the area required for such various installations as lifts, conveyors, etc. which are required for the use of books in a library. Books come in very different sizes – from 5 centimetres to a metre in height and in all widths. Books are expensive because of the technical requirements for their manufacture. In thirty years the average price of scholarly works has increased by 33 percent.

Books cannot be voluntarily reproduced as needed except by the always burdensome process of issuing re-prints or new editions. Several hundreds or thousands of copies must be produced at any one time without knowing how many will be sold. Hence arise attempts by publishers to rid themselves of unsold stock. This is disposed of to anonymous second-hand dealers or is simply destroyed. Thus, copies of a book rapidly become scarce and, a few years after publication, are no longer available.

The end result of this sequence of events can be confirmed by a statistical analysis recently completed in Berlin. The Königliche Bibliothek in Berlin and eleven Prussian university libraries, having agreed to form a union catalogue (Gesamtkatalog), were disappointed in their hope of great economy of work, for it was found that 60 percent of the titles were held by only one of the twelve libraries.

In short, the present situation of the Book and the Periodical from the point of view of scholarly research is this: titles are distributed to many libraries which are situated in cities far distant from one another; access to these libraries is not always easy and delays in securing works often discourage the most tenacious workers with great injury to scientific progress.


The documentary method complements the other methods of study and research – observation, experimentation, and deduction. All the related research work that is completed in various countries by various persons, whether predecessors or contemporaries, is recorded in books and journals. If one is to use this work, if it is not to be repeated, if one is to take advantage of the cooperation of others and immerse oneself in all the information that it is desirable to have, it is necessary to be familiar with the bibliography, with the literature – past and present, national and international – of a subject But it is not enough that a general organisation of bibliography is leading each day to the development of a Universal Bibliographic Repertory, which is an instrument for concentrating and a point for distributing bibliographic information. It is still necessary that the writings referred to, the original sources themselves, and not merely abstracts or summaries of them, be put into the hands of researchers.

The journeys of scholars, international exchanges of scholarly books between libraries, copies or extracts requested from abroad and the purchase from agencies of clippings from periodicals, are quite inadequate for this purpose. The concentration of collections of books in every city into a single great library is a trend which is increasing. The creation of special international libraries, even an international library that is universal in scope, has been advocated. However, it is a new method of publication that would contribute most rapidly and extensively to the improvement of the present situation. From the preceding examination the requirement can be deduced that a new form of the Book should be found which will do away with the inconveniences referred to and which in the future will produce books that are: 1) less heavy and smaller; 2) uniform in size; 3) on a permanent material; 4) moderate in price; 5) easy to preserve; 6) easy to consult; and 7) continuously produced: that is, copies or duplicates can be produced on request.


Photography would seem to be able to provide a solution to the problem thus posed. It is this to which we must now have recourse for new developments in documentary methods.

Research along these lines has been undertaken at the International Institute of Bibliography. The goal has been to create in a practical way a microphotographic book which can be enlarged as needed at the time of reading. The experiments made so far suggest that it will be possible to reproduce in very small dimensions any page of a book or any kind of printed image on one of the successive and very small sensitized frames which make up a microphotographic reel. These frames would then be brought before an enlarging apparatus at the time of reading.

Laboratory experiments suggest that the technical problems we have just described can be considered as completely solvable. If, as it is hoped, industrial applications of the processes are possible, the practical consequences will be of the greatest importance. First, the preservation of microphotographic documents will become easy. They will be arranged in banks of drawers similar to those now used for card catalogues. Because of the light weight and small size of the documents, it will be very simple to set up collections rigorously classified by subject or according to some other order.

Moreover, each filmed document can be used as a negative in its turn for making new copies. It is of little consequence whether a printed text is read black on white or white on black; that the latter is preferred for advertisements and publicity suggests that it is actually more legible.

In addition, the microphotographic process will be very economical. Labour is almost the only factor to be taken into account in creating the film; raw materials are insignificant in price.

Initially, the procedure described would be used to reproduce collections of illustrated matter or periodical articles, even indeed separately the conclusions of theses. They could be reproduced at the same time as the bibliographic cards themselves. This is a goal particularly aimed at by the Institute of Bibliography. It would meet the requirements of those who consult its repertories and who crave some rapid means of distinguishing the useful from the useless in the cards supplied without having to waste precious time in numerous libraries. Collections of periodicals in our public depositories are generally very limited and incomplete, while journals are not systematically collected by individuals.

Since each fiche contains an area on which at least seventy-two pages of text can be reproduced, only one card would be needed for most articles because they rarely exceed this length. In principle, it would be best if a distinct and separate card were used for the photographic negative of each article.

If photomicroscopic printing and reading processes come into use on a large scale, undeniably extensive consequences may be anticipated from them. A more rapid distribution of printed matter of a scholarly kind would occur as a result of their extreme cheapness and the ease with which each centre, library, or institute which contained the documents, could have them reproduced either from actual copies or from photomicroscopic negatives. The situation of libraries in these new circumstances would be similar to that of museums of documentary photographs (12). Old manuscripts, original documents, rare or out-of-print works would be reproduced first and fires in our depositories would thus be less dreaded. All kinds of prints, pictures, and documentary photographs which have been assembled in local or special collections, could be duplicated and exchanged by means of this new mode of “publishing.” It would be possible at last to anticipate setting up international and universal libraries and picture collections.

If one had the necessary resources at one’s disposal all of Human Thought could be held in a few hundred catalogue drawers, ready for diffusion and to respond to any request.


It is quite natural that such developments should seem like marvels and that initially, deeming them to be impossible, the mind should reject any pursuit of them. But, according to a common slogan, do we not live in a time in which yesterday’s utopia is today’s dream and tomorrow’s reality? In order to create the most serious expectations let us simply recall the following result of combining microphotography and enlargement by projection which has already been achieved and widely used: a roll of motion picture film 50 metres long can now be stored in a small metal box 15 centimetres in diameter and 2.5 centimetres deep. The roll contains 5,000 exposures. Each of these exposures can be projected on a screen which can be as large as 16 square metres. This small box, therefore, contains in the form of a minuscule volume the wherewith al to project at will and repeatedly 80,000 square metres of photographic documents.

Note. This communication was read at the Congrès international de documentation photographique at Marseilles (19 October 1906). After discussion, the following resolution was adopted: “The Congress takes note of the communication of the International Institute of Bibliography on the subject of the kind of research that it is undertaking with the collaboration of M. Robert Goldschmidt in order to find a practical procedure for creating and reading documents (both text and illustration) according to the methods of microphotography and cinematography. Observing the importance inherent in the procedures proposed, the Congress invites specialists to cooperate with the International Institute of Bibliography in finding a solution to the requirements that have been formulated.”