At the time of its publication in 1944, Fremont Rider’s book “The Scholar and The Future of the Research Library” struck a chord among American librarians. For decades, librarians had struggled with the sharp increase in research material and documentation. As a consequence of WWII and its aftermath, financial resources were scare and interlibrary loans, the import of books, or exchange of information were only slowly reinstalled. At the same time, after nearly two decades of public and private-sector investment, the microfilm systems that were already in place in many US-institutions and offices showed first signs of their shortcomings. Especially, the screen projection (or alternatively, the wall or table projection, see the Bibliophote), which had been promoted as a tool of modern visualization, was also one of the greatest weaknesses of microphotography. From the outset, users condemned the strain on the eye caused by the strong light and occasionally blurred images. Most projectors did not yet work in daylight conditions. In addition, the electric screen projectors easily overheated. Among scholars, even among outspoken advocates, the dependency on the machine for reading microfilm was met with caution. In addition to this, users criticized that the film material was easily damaged when spooling, thus, it was prone to scratches or, again, overheating.

In light of the challenges to modern librarianship and the flaws of microfilm, Fremont Rider, a librarian at Wesleyan University and former student of Melvil Dewey, with a strong interest in genealogy, proposed the Micro-Card as a potential solution. Based on the products of the Readex Microprint Corporation, the micro-card was a 7.5 x 12.5 opaque and more robust cardboard card. The front-side of the card carried the cataloging information, and on reverse side, the book pages were reproduced in a highly reduced format. By conceiving a card that carried both, the content and its description, Rider hoped to accelerate access to the filmed material. The improvement of access to the increasingly diversified library material, by technology, was, in Rider’s opinion, one of the greatest challenges to future librarianship. Researchers would search the catalogue directly for the entry, select a card and insert it into the reader. Hence, the micro-card collection was two-in-one: it served as catalogue and as the centralized, condensed collection of the content itself. During the early 1950s, Eastman Kodak also developed its version of the micro-card, a photographic print on paper, titled microprint together with a reader machine. The technology got applied in several large-scale scientific (anthropological, social) surveys and the publication of research data but quickly faded into oblivion.

The Scholar and the Future of the Research Library

Microcards – When?

How soon is it going to be possible to initiate micro-card publication?

The ultra-conservative librarian would perhaps reply, probably not for two or three years at best. He would say that micro-card are such a new concept, so utterly and completely new, that, before even a start can be made to make them an established part of library practice, a number of basic and extremely far-reaching decisions regarding their manufacture and use will have to be reached. And he would add that basic and far-reaching decisions ought not to be made offhand; and that therefore the decisions to be reached in this case deserve – and indeed demand ¬– long and careful study.

But it is possible to draw an exactly opposite conclusion the very same original premises. It can be pointed out that, just because micro-cards are a new concept, no one can be foresighted enough to see advance the problems that are going to arise the use of them, or the possibilities of use them that are going to develop. lt can be argued¬ ¬¬– and argued with even more force ¬– that to delay using them in order to settle every detail before we start is simply to waste time and money to accomplish nothing. It is quite true that there are a few fundamental micro-card determinations that will have to be made before anything can be done; but, when we examine them, most of these decisions are found to settle themselves. If we try to settle every last detail in advance, we can easily waste years in an endless – and really almost entirely theoretical – discussion of the minutiae of micro-card practice.

Let us see if it is not true that most of our fundamental determinations settle themselves for us.

Size of micro-card? Isn’t this, for example, a question that has, to all intents and purposes, been decided before we start? It is true that there has been a little discussion of the possible advantages of using, for cataloging purposes, a «half-size» card. But this discussion was had over a catalog card that was intended to be a catalog card, and nothing more. Not the situation is entirely changed. We want to use the back of our card for a micro-text, and to add an abstract to the usual cataloging entry on the front. Argument can still be made – and not entirely unfounded argument either – for a half-size micro-card. But, considering all the facts – additional material that we want to get on the cards, the general «handiness» of our standard 7 ½ x 12 ½ cm. size for circulation purposes, our long familiarity with that size, and the existence of an enormous amount of filing equipment that fits it – it would appear that a decision in favor of adopting, for micro-cards, our standard catalog card size is one that may be taken for granted.

Catalog entry and abstract to be placed on the front of the micro-card to be placed on its back? This basic decision seems equally obvious and logical; indeed, no alternative decision seems possible.

Shall we standardize the degree of micro-reduction? And, if so, at what power? Here we initiate controversy. Actually, however desirable such a standardization as this might be at some time, it is not, at the present time, possible of attainment. We are not yet standardized as to reading machines; and, at the present stage of the art, we cannot be. All our machines are still in their embryonic stages. Looking at them with an unprejudiced, long range eye they are all crude, bulky, unclear, and unduly expensive contrivances. It is not even by any means sure that we are as yet on the most efficient track with them, either optically or mechanically. This being outlook, we are certainly in no position now to attempt to standardize such a detail as the degree of magnification of our micro-text, important though that detail may be.

Nor do we need to. With the machines that we have we can read the micro-texts that we have. With the better machines that we shall get in the future we shall always be able to read whatever micro-texts we accumulate in the meanwhile. The thing to do is to start at once – improving both the reduction ant the definition of our texts, and the efficiency of our reading devices, as we go along.

A standardized form of catalog entry. Let’s face the facts. After nearly a century of argument, catalogers haven’t yet been able to reach world-wide agreement on a standardized form of catalog entry. Is there then the slightest likelihood that they would succeed any better if they tried to set up a standardized form of catalog entry for micro-cards? And why do we need to wait while they discuss it? The Library of Congress form of catalog entry, even if it is not unanimously approved, is certainly an excellent and adequate one. Until catalogers agree on something better, why could we not start our micro-cards with that as our model? Probably it would be desirable to modify it slightly for micro-card use; but whatever modifications are desirable can be put into effect at any time. Neither cataloging format nor form of entry has to be final. The Library of Congress has changed its own form of entry repeatedly over the years, and undoubtedly will continue to do so. So can micro-cards.

Abstracting forms and methods? Here again month might be spent arguing over the details of a code of rules for micro-card abstracting. But why? There exist already excellent models in such journals as Chemical Abstracts, Mathematical Abstracts, the A.L.A. Booklist, etc. Without too much preliminary argument over details why cannot mico-cards follow these excellent models? It will always be possible for us to improve further on them later.

The form of micro-card headings? especially their subject headings? This would seem to be our most puzzling immediate problem, in fact almost our only one. On this one question there would seem to be necessity for some very thoughtful consideration; for, if some of the suggestions made in this book have any validity, this matter of micro-card subject headings will directly affect a considerable number of other micro-card decisions – all important. A concentration of Committee study upon this on question, ought, however to develop reasonable answers to it in a few months, if not in a few weeks.

Yes, «in a few weeks». The library and scholarly worlds face a situation that demands of them at the present time, not merely study but action, forward-looking, courageous action, definite and intensely practical action. In taking any such action we are going to make some initial mistake that we can make that cannot in due course be corrected later, and that is the mistake of indefinite postponement!

It was remarked somewhere earlier in this book that that a «pilot plant approach» to all new library ideas is always the desirable approach. We don’t have to wait until the division-of-fields set-up has been completely organized. Once any one library has been assured of the exact limits of its field it can begin.

Nor does the library have to feel that it cannot start publishing its micro-cards until it is ready to cover all of its field. It will be a long, long time before it reaches that point! It can begin. At once. With a little. Certain titles only out of all its field. Certain most useful, most wanted, and hardest-to-get things. Scarce early material. Each field will offer its own special problems of choice; but every field will offer endless opportunities to begin to issue something at once.

Perhaps, at the end of its first year, a given library will find that it has not issued over a thousand micro-cards; it may hardly have made a dent in its field. But it will have no reason to feel dissatisfied. For in that year it will have learned the ropes; will have seen and corrected its initial mistakes; will have found ways to cut its first costs; will have discovered better production techniques; will have improved the physical appearance of its cards. The second year it will be ready really to go to work; the second year it may issue ten thousand cards instead of the one thousand it issued its first year. And so on.

This is the logical, the safe, the sound way for micro-cards to develop. It is also the easy way and the inexpensive way. In one respect we of the library world are incredibly fortunate: micro-card publishing requires less initial «plant» equipment investment, and less technical skill, than any other sort of publishing, or printing, whatsoever. That enables every library, unskilled as it may be both in micro-card printing and in any kind of publishing procedure, to «start small» – very, very small – and feel its way.

By sheer coincidence, it happens that, at this very moment, another problem is pressing upon the scholarly and library worlds for collective, constructive action, for which micro-cards would seem to offer almost the ideal solution. All over the world ¬– but particularly in Europe – great research libraries have been destroyed by enemy action. Many more are going to be destroyed before the war is over. And not only libraries, but booksellers’ and publishers’ stocks of books, millions of books. The extend of the destruction done is not only unprecedented: in a very real sense it is irreparable. We assured by every highly competent source of information that, for many types of scholarly materials – for example, for sets of certain key research periodicals – an acute and world-wide dearth is going to become apparent once peace has come again. Accompanying this dearth of certain of the basic materials of research, at the very time when the reviving world is going desperately to need those materials in widely available form, there is going to exist, in all of these devastated libraries, a corresponding dearth of funds, of funds not only to buy them with, but also funds to catalog them with after the have been bought, of funds to bind them with, and of funds to build vast new stacks, the world over, to house them in.

This devastated-library problem has already received wide and thoughtful study. It has been proposed to reprint by photo-lithography, or to micro-film, or to photostat – each of these three methods has been suggested – certain of these essential research materials, and, having done this (either with government funds, or foundation funds, or both), to distribute sets of them to a hundred or more of the destroyed libraries of Europe and Asia.

May it be suggested here that, instead of using any one of the three above-mentioned processes, these research materials be micro-carded- Even if we had only the first cost, the manufacturing cost, to consider, micro-cards would still seem to be the first choice, simply because micro-card copies are by far the cheapest to make.

But, as has been pointed out again and again all through this book, this first cost, purchase cost, is by no means the only cost that librarians face. Instead, it is only the first of four costs, and it is not even the largest one of four. To meet the other three costs, neuther photostating, nor photo-litographic reproduction, nor micro-filming can aid in any way. But micro-cards cand, and do. If micro-cards were used for the wholesale reproduction of research materials, there would be saved, to all these devastated libraries, not only all of their purchase cost on these materials, but also all of their binding costs, all of their cataloging costs, practically all of their transportation costs, and all of their housing costs. And it would save them on all five of these costs at a time when it is desperately necessary for them to save in every direction that they possibly can.

And finally ¬– but by no means whatever least – the micro-carding of all this key research material would accomplish another thing. While we were making micro-cards of it for these foreign libraries, it would be possible, at very slight additional cost indeed, to micro-card additional copies of it to supply it to scores of our own American college and university libraries, libraries which have long wanted it but have not been able to afford it. These American libraries would not ask to get it free. They would be glad to pay its small costs.

In other words, to put it bluntly: the very war situation we are in offers us a unique opportunity to initiate the micro-card era – if, only we move quickly to take advantage of it. But we shall have to move quickly: alternative steps in other directions are already under way, steps greatly more costly, and greatly less useful, to the libraries we are seeking to serve.