Microfilm and Intelligence Services

In exile in London from 1942 to 1945, the former Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy headed the filming service of the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux, the most important British library association. In the decades before and after World War II, she was deeply involved with modern documentation and the potential of photography as an information technology. During the war years, microfilming was used for intelligence and preservation purposes, the latter referred to as the Emergency Project. Moholy’s interest in microphotography was not new: as early as 1932, she sought contact with Paul Otlet by correspondence to exchange views on the latest in microphotography and the usefulness of photography for modern documentation.

In 1940, as part of the British Manuscript Project, Moholy directed the filming at the library of Cambridge University on behalf of the American Council for Learned Societies and in close cooperation with the London office of the Rockefeller Foundation. The project called for a positive copy to remain in Britain, while the negative film was sent to the Library of Congress, which subsequently supplied copies of the films to American research institutes. In addition to the scarcity of resources due to the war, correspondence and project reports consistently referred to the indispensability of trained personnel for the success of the filming projects. With her training and experience in repro techniques, Moholy quickly advanced to become an expert who in turn trained other photographers in this specialty. From 1941, she operated out of her office in London’s Science Museum. With the entry of the United States into World War II, she was appointed head of the Aslib Microfilm Service, or AMS, with a staff that at times numbered 30. Under the aegis of the British Royal Society and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, this three-year project produced over 5 million images of scientific journals from Germany, Russia, and China, such as Zeiss-Nachrichten, Zeitschrift für Astrophysik, Zeitschrift für Biologie, Automobiltechnische Zeitung, and others.

The filming of these journals needs to be considered as scientific and industrial espionage, and as Moholy wryly noted in retrospect, she had mutated into an employee of Bletchley Park, the British intelligence center and spy headquarters. The AMS was discontinued in 1945. The guiding principle, however, of improving the accessibility of knowledge and intellectual cooperation, whether philanthropically or commercially motivated, remained.

In 1945, Lucia Moholy presented, through the British delegation, a draft she had written entitled “Microfilm Services and their Application to Scholarly Study, Scientific Research, Education and Re-Education in the Post-War Period”[1] which was based on her experience with the AMS and her involvement in various international bodies on documentation, such as the annual meetings of the Féderation International de Documentation. Following up on her work in the United Kingdom, Moholy became one of the main advocates for the universal use of microphotography. Specifically, she proposed a central authority in Great Britain to coordinate worldwide activities. Her efforts were both supported and undermined by several American actors. These included people from her professional network, such as Archibald McLeish, the head of the Library of Congress, Luther Evans, later director general of UNESCO, and Waldo G. Leland, the former director of the Emergency Program. The American delegation, however, showed only little interest in forming a transnational body for advancing the technology, because American companies, particularly Eastman Kodak and Remington Rand, already held a quasi-monopoly position in the postwar period and operated worldwide. Moholy’s effort resulted in the creation of UNESCO’s Mobile Microfilm Unit, which carried out several large-scale microfilm projects until the late 1970s. However, this Unit remained seriously underfunded throughout its existence.

[1] See extract of original draft in Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus Fotografin, ed. Rolf Sachsse (Berlin: Bauhaus-Archiv, 1995): 65-66.

The ASLIB Microfilm Service. The Story of its Wartime Activities

[p. 147] In 1941, with the help of the Royal Society and with funds provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, Aslib made a survey of the deficiencies in the supply to libraries in Great Britain of current scientific and technical periodicals from enemy and” enemy-controlled countries.

The results of this survey, reported to the Royal Society in August 1941, were regarded as justifying an approach to the Cabinet Advisory Committee on Science, under the chairmanship of Lord Hankey, to obtain support for increased importations of such periodicals.

The Cabinet Advisory Committee considered the matter at a session attended by representatives of the Royal Society and various government departments, including the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, H.M. Stationery Office, and the Agricultural and Medical Research Councils, with Lord Hankey in the Chair. The outcome was a recommendation that, although additional importations could not be approved, means should be sought to produce additional copies of the periodicals already imported. Sir Edward Appleton, Secretary of the D.S.I.R.,’ was asked to consider the necessary machinery for this project.

In November 1941 a meeting of representatives of government libraries, H.M. Stationery Office, and Aslib was convened by Mr. C. A. Spencer, acting for Sir Edward Appleton, to consider the results of the investigations made by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research with regard to this matter. The outcome of this meeting was to recommend the adoption of microfilming as a means of duplicating enemy periodicals in short supply. The D.S.I.R. and H.M.S.O. had each considered the possibility of establishing departmentally the necessary machinery for duplication, but neither department felt in a position to set up the required service. Aslib was therefore asked to consider the possibility of undertaking the scheme.

By this time it had been decided that the only effective way of meeting the difficulties would be to microfilm all incoming material before it was distributed to the various departments, and from the master negative to make microfilm copies or enlarged paper prints as and when required. H.M.S.O. and the government libraries were requested to lend their aid to the scheme by allowing access to the periodicals which were being imported.

In January 1942 a Standing Advisory Committee was appointed to go into details of the projected microfilm service. On this committee were represented: the Royal Society, by Professor E. N. da C. Andrade, F.R.S., Dr. E. F. Armstrong, F.R.S., Professor V. H. Blackman, F.R.S., and Dr. C. H. Desch, F.R.S.; the government libraries, by Sir David Chadwick (Agricultural Research Council), Mr. A. A. Gomme (Patent Office Library), Dr. F. H. K. [p. 148] Green (Medical Research Council), Mr. Lancaster Jones (Science Library), and Mr. C. A. Spencer (D.S.I.R.); and Aslib, by Mr. E. J. Carter, Miss E. M. R. Ditmas, and Dr. R. S. Hutton.

The Standing Advisory Committee met in February 1942 and drew up an appeal to the Royal Society and the Rockefeller Foundation for funds to start the service. Subsequently this Standing Committee appointed an Executive Committee comprising Dr. Desch as Chairman, Mr. Carter, Dr. Hutton, and Mr. Lancaster Jones. An approach for funds to operate the service was made to a number of British industrial organizations through individual contacts. Within a few weeks the following results were reported: the Royal Society guaranteed £200 for immediate expenses; promises of over £1000 were received from industrial organizations in Great Britain; the Rockefeller Foundation allocated $7000 for the purchase of microfilming equipment. At various later dates further sums totalling $3000 were allocated to the microfilm service by the Rockefeller Foundation for the purchase of additional machinery, bringing the total up to approximately $10,000.

Donations were received from the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company Ltd., High Duty Alloys Ltd., Electrical & Musical Industries Ltd., the four big railway companies and London Transport, General Electric Company Ltd., Lyons & Co. Ltd., Turner & Newall Ltd., Mond Nickel Co. Ltd., Lever Brothers & Unilever Ltd., Howard & Sons Ltd., the Iron and Steel Industrial Research Council, the British Cast Iron Research Association; and an annual subsidy from Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. The total received fromBritish industry was £2151.5.

In April 1942 Mr. Eugene Power, of University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan, arrived in England to arrange for the supply of microfilms of scientific and technical periodicals from enemy and enemy-occupied countries to government departments, research institutions, and university libraries in the United States—for the United States, more even than Britain, was completely cut off from all supplies of enemy publications. It was at once apparent that there would be much waste and duplication if two services were created for substantially the same purpose. It was therefore agreed that the two projects should be united and that the Aslib Microfilm Service should supply the U.S.A. as well as the British market, with Mr. Power as their agent in the U.S.A. Financial details were satisfactorily settled. Mr. Power agreed to lend one of his cameras then working in Cambridge; Colonel Mackintosh offered emergency accommodation in the Science Museum; Mrs. Moholy, who in the preparatory stage had acted in a consultant capacity, was invited to undertake the organization; and so the Aslib Microfilm Service began its operations on 20 April 1942. The inauguration of the Microfilm Service, Mrs. Moholy’s appointment as its Director, and the financial arrangements with Mr. Power were ratified by the Aslib Council on 6 May 1942.




[p. 151] By arrangement between various departments of H.M. and U.S. Governments, all periodicals, newspapers, and other material scheduled for microfilming were collected by U.S. Marines from the departments concerned and taken to the A.M.S. regularly every morning. The films, too, when ready, were collected by Marines and delivered to the departments concerned, as far as government work was involved.

The time-limit for the microfilming of scientific and technical periodicals which came to the A.M.S. through government channels, was 48 hours; for newspapers 24 hours. Within these 48 or 24 hours one, two, or three negatives were taken, and accordingly each publication passed under the cameras once, twice, or three times as required. The daily output varied with the kind of material coming in and with the amount of bibliographical and administrative work needed if the best use was to be made of the technical side of the service.

When the A.M.S. was being planned it was anticipated that the scope of the service would be limited mainly to technical activities, while the bibliographical and administrative side would remain with Aslib. It became evident at an early stage, however, that A.M.S. activities would have to cover [p. 152] a considerably wider field than the mere technical processes of filming and copying. Every document had to be checked, labelled, entered, indexed, and classified, and it was quite natural for the A.M.S. to take its full share of bibliographical, statistical, and administrative work in the same way as any technical library. Without these services the A.M.S. would hardly have earned the recognition and reputation which in fact it has had the privilege to enjoy— not only everywhere in Great Britain but equally in all countries of the British Commonwealth, in the United States, in China, and, as time went on and the war came to an end, also in France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and other countries.

Close co-operation has of course been maintained with other bodies in the field, such as the British Standards Institution, the Library Association, the International Federation of Documentation, and its British branch, the British Society for International Bibliography.

As in any periodicals library, the A.M.S. film catalogues form an integral part of the service and a great deal of time and labour has been devoted to them. Every index card shows at a glance the complete holdings of a particular title, and at the same time serves as a basis for further acquisitions. Other sets of cards are designed for cumulative records of a union catalogue type.

Of the three negatives taken of all scientific and technical periodicals from enemy countries, two had a regular market in the United States. For these, as for any other films taken for the United States under the existing arrangements, Mr. Power paid a pro rata share in all running expenses, including material, labour, and overheads, plus a 10 per cent. Commission to the general funds of Aslib. The third negative was financed from the donations and served as a master negative for supplying copies to research institutions in Great Britain and the British Commonwealth.

Towards the end of the first year the number of titles coming in more or less regularly was 280. Copying orders were received of 105 titles, and among them standing orders, i.e. subscriptions for all issues that could be made available, of 37 titles.

This result seemed to lag behind expectations, though a number of reasons explain why development was slow:

  1. A prejudice against microfilm which as yet had been little used in this country.
  2. A shortage of microfilm readers and little prospect of improvement under war conditions.
  3. Security restrictions imposed by H.M. Government, which did not allow details of the scheme to reach the public beyond a limited circle of members and subscribers.

Steps were taken to encourage the production of microfilm readers and to arrange for papers, discussions, and demonstrations with the aim of making the usefulness of microfilm more generally known in the right quarters.

Since the paper shortage was acute and paper severely rationed, the numbers of enlargements that could be made from microfilm—using the [p. 153] film as an intermediary—were strictly limited. And yet paper enlargements seemed the only alternative as long as microfilm readers were not available. It was essential to break this vicious circle and encourage research workers to use microfilm. It was therefore decided that the A.M.S. should assist them by relieving the strain of selecting from microfilm the subject-matter they required. With this aim in mind classified contents lists of the most important periodicals were compiled in typescript. These lists recorded particulars of author, title, number of pages, illustrations, and other detail. While they were published as a help and encouragement, subscription to these contents lists carried no obligation to order film.

In the first series, covering periodicals published in 1942, the titles were grouped under the following headings and sub-headings:

  1. Pure science, sub-divided into
    1. General;
    2. Physics, mathematics, astronomy, geophysics, mechanics;
    3. Chemistry, biochemistry;
    4. Biology, botany, zoology, geology.
  2. Medicine.
  3. Engineering, sub-divided into
    1. General;
    2. Mechanical, automotive;
    3. Electrical, radio;
    4. Mining, civil, sanitary.
  4. Agriculture.
  5. Chemical technology.
  6. Metallurgy.


[p. 156] The advantages of microfilm had been recognized, and plans for its [p. 157] extensive use by H.M. and U.S. Governments were decided upon early in 1942 at the time when, among other projects, the enemy periodicals project was considered and approved. From the very day of its inception the A.M.S., besides building up the periodicals scheme, was called upon to co-operate in other projects which involved the microfilming of large quantities of newspapers, books, files, monitoring reports, and other documents for the use of H.M. and U.S. government departments. […]

[p. 160] Including all the schemes described or mentioned in this survey, the total production of microfilms photographed, copied, recorded, and indexed by the A.M.S. was 5,500,000 pages; the films (produced in other centres) checked, recorded, and indexed by the A.M.S. amount to 7,000,000 pages, making a grand total of 12,500,000 pages.

The modifications of the A.M.S. scope and the A.M.S. organization do not alter the fact that the service was originally set up for the purpose of serving immediate war-time needs. At the same time, however, and largely due to these modifications, the A.M.S. was able to develop in itself the elements [p. 161] required for a service of a more permanent character. Beyond the supply of films and all it entailed, it extended its activities to the whole field of microfilms in the first instance, and to the wider field of documentary reproduction in general as time went on. In particular the A.M.S. acted as an information centre on microfilm readers and other equipment, on questions pertaining to the filing, indexing, and cataloguing of films, on the problem of copyright as it now presents itself, on the organization ‘of film libraries, and on many other matters arising from the uses of photographic reproduction for purposes of study and research.

The end of the war brought to the A.M.S. a complete cancellation of all government contracts for microfilm services, and reduced the demand from research institutions for microfilm copies of war-time publications. Post-war programmes were discussed at various stages, and though the need for documentary reproduction as an aid to science and learning was potentially great, it has been anticipated that the service would need time and funds for adjusting itself and for developing the demand. It might be tempting to think that, given the necessary means, the A.M.S. would have been able to extend its scope to serve not only natural science and technology but also the social and economic sciences and the humanities. For the foundations which the A.M.S., with the help of others, had built for itself were sound; and the hope was not unjustified that the service might be able to organize its activities on a broad basis along the lines followed by similar institutions in other countries. This hope unfortunately failed to materialize, partly because the necessary means could not be found, and partly because in the public mind microfilm services are still too closely associated with war-time needs.

The future will show to what extent this view will be subject to modification; for there is little doubt that also under peace-time conditions the microfilm–in strips, rolls, and squares—will serve a great number of scholarly purposes which no other method can serve equally well. There is no likelihood on the other hand of microfilm being used to the exclusion of other techniques, since each of them, according to its special merits, is suited for different purposes and different circumstances.



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