Since 2017, ODW has been exploring low-cost options for digitizing newspapers from microfilm. Inspired by DIY and makerspace memes popular in the library community,

ODW has worked on a prototype that can be assembled from readily-available components with a view towards providing a low-cost alternative for microfilm scanning. The approach centers around macrophotography, a technique that employs a special lens to zoom in at a level that allows intricate details of an object to be captured. Macrophotography has typically been used for capturing details of subjects in nature, like insects and flower petals, but it has broad application for anything at a reduced scale, including tiny photographs of newspaper pages.

At the 2018 OLA SuperConference, ODW Board Member and University of Windsor librarian, Art Rhyno, presented an overview of the first version of the prototype in a session entitled DIY Digitization of Community Newspapers. Part of the presentation included a video of the prototype (see below).

It is admittedly difficult to discern the components of the prototype in the video, but it illustrates 3 of the 4 building blocks to microfilm scanning listed in the 2018 presentation:

  1. Dealing with torque
  2. Configuring a stable camera arrangement
  3. Supplying appropriate lighting
  4. Finding flexible options for merging

Torque is a “twisting force to cause rotation”, and is needed to rotate microfilm reels in order for a camera to take pictures at different parts of the reel. Microfilm is surprisingly challenging for motors, and requires a fairly high level of torque to stand up to rotating reels for hours at a time. The best results were achieved with a rotisserie motor rated for 50 lbs, and one surprise with this setup was discovering that very few models of this type of motor had consistent turning directions, i.e., most randomly spin clockwise or counter-clockwise but not necessarily the same way twice.

The camera arrangement can be achieved with a tripod and possibly some creativity if the positioning of the camera over the light source is awkward (as you might guess from the video). A light table or a LED work light with a sheet of white plexiglass can provide the light source for illuminating the film. The results can be seen below, using an advertisement from the Nov. 20, 1874 edition of the Amherstburg Echo, there is no doubt that using a camera with a macro lens can be an effective strategy for capturing the level of detail necessary for microfilm.

Figure 1.

An original microfilm scan [Figure 1] from a decade ago. The film’s imperfections and the challenges of the illustration itself combine to make a problematic image.

Figure 2.

A recent scan [Figure 2] from a commercial provider. This scan has been post-processed to increase the contrast between the ink and the background page. This is certainly an improvement over the first image but is still difficult to read.

Figure 3.

The same page [Figure 3] with macrophotography. The image is much truer to its original form, though still challenging (for example, the lines in italic).

The original prototype used a standard DSLR Camera but the moving mirror in a DSLR eventually became problematic for microfilm since so many pictures were required to capture an entire reel and the parts would soon wear out. A mirrorless camera turned out to be a better option. Without moving parts, a mirrorless camera can take many more photos, an important consideration when a single reel can represent more than 1000 pages. The other key piece of camera equipment is a macro lens. Some microfilm may not require the level of magnification that a macro lens provides, but newspaper pages, in particular, need much stronger zoom support than a standard lens typically provides.

ODW, in partnership with the University of Windsor, has now scanned hundreds of newspaper reels. At the time of this writing, newspaper reels continue to be scanned, as can be seen below:

Note that this arrangement has two scanners controlled by one workstation. From the beginning, Ubuntu has been the backbone of the system controlling the scanning, relying on the remarkable ecosystem that linux has fostered. Many pages can be split into two or more images, depending on the way the page was photographed for the microfilm, and there has been no shortage of high quality image merging software to “stitch” the pages back together.

There have been some hard lessons to be learned along the way, however. Unlike the majority of computer equipment, camera equipment tends to fluctuate more wildly in pricing. The mirrorless camera purchased last year for $600 CAD, is now nearly 3 times that cost! At the same time, there is a newer mirrorless model that is about $400 CAD. It can be good to have a conversation with someone versed in camera equipment before assembling a scanning station.

The majority of historical newspapers will benefit from macrophotography, but some microfilm, particularly vesicular microfilm, will not benefit from the lighting system and may appear “washed out.” Badly scratched and/or dirty microfilm may, in turn, produce high resolution images of flaws in the film in addition to the pages themselves.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is to try out alternative approaches. It is not easy to walk into a camera store with microfilm and a light source in order to sample different cameras and lenses. Phone cameras, which are improving at an incredibly rapid pace, are even more problematic for testing, since they tend to be tied to phone plans and reseller arrangements. In all these cases, there is usually a need to purchase equipment up front, and hope that it provides the desired results upon deployment.

ODW is currently investigating options for microfiche scanning. Most newspaper projects avoid microfiche formats but sometimes there is no other alternative, particularly with small community newspapers in Ontario. We welcome partners in exploring scanning options for these formats and would like to achieve a blueprint that would put low-cost scanners into the reach of almost any organization seeking to convert film formats to digital form.