Preservation Microfilming Projects & Practice

This activity is now closed. The information on this page is provided for historical purposes only.

Preservation has been a central focus of RLG since four large research institutions founded the organization in the early 1970s. In a series of projects in the 1980s and 1990s, we preserved significant collections while creating tools to assist institutions worldwide in preserving and improving access to endangered research materials.

RLG members and staff:

  • developed consensus on technical and procedural guidelines for the production of stable, long-lived, high-quality, preservation microfilm;
  • created preservation master negatives (35mm microfilm) for over 145,000 monograph and serial volumes (1982-1995);
  • created preservation master negatives (35mm microfilm) for 1,200 linear feet of archival and manuscript collections;
  • conducted training in management of preservation microfilming projects and instructional workshops for quality control;
  • wrote and published widely used guidelines for microfilming books/serials and archives/manuscripts;
  • arranged a shared long-term storage facility for members’ master negatives;
  • provided for general ordering of art serials filmed by RLG Art and Architecture Group participants.


RLG’s achievements in providing operational capacity and expertise in brittle books reformatting were made possible by the efforts of energetic RLG members, generous grants from a number of US charitable foundations, and, especially, support and funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities' Division of Preservation and Access.

The following overview updates "RLG: A Pioneer in Collaborative Preservation"—a report contributed by Nancy Elkington and Patricia McClung to an extended article “The Research Libraries Group: Making a Difference,” that appeared in issue 46 (12:2, 1994) of Library Hi Tech.

Although it is easy to forget in these days of high-speed data transmission, international networking, and the Web, libraries’ first forays into the world of technology began not with automated catalogs in the 1960s but with microfilm in the 1930s. Looking for ways to ensure continued access to newspapers and heavily used journals as well as unique archival materials, major research libraries began setting up internal laboratories complete with state-of-the-art cameras, processors, printers, inspection equipment, and highly trained staff. For decades these labs churned out miles of 16mm and 35mm microfilm containing books, magazines, pamphlets, periodicals, and university archives.

By the middle of the 1970s, most of these labs were still operating, some with two or three staff, most still using vintage camera equipment purchased nearly 40 years earlier. When the four original members of RLG’s preservation program met for the first time in 1975, one of their top priorities for collaborative action was to develop a coordinated microfilming project for brittle materials. Within just a few years, that desire translated into one of the nation’s first coordinated attempts to take an existing reformatting technology and apply it systematically to brittle materials.

Why was that first project so significant? Because it provided a model around which national preservation reformatting efforts coalesced. Participants in that effort worked together to identify appropriate handling procedures, to make changes in LG’s RLIN® system that would support collaboration, but also, in effect, to re-engineer existing industry technical specifications to ensure that the resulting microfilm would have a life expectancy of at least 500 years. Thus, RLG became a change agent in preservation reformatting technology, a role it continues to play today in the era of digital preservation.

Cooperative Preservation Microfilming Project (CPMP), Phases I and II
Launched in 1982, the first RLG cooperative project resulted in the filming of 45,000 brittle volumes and their cataloging through RLIN into the RLG Union Catalog, the creation of an archetypal model that would gain national acceptance, consensus on procedures to be followed, and identification of cost data for key elements in the reformatting process. The guidelines became de facto national standards for libraries creating preservation microfilm, and the cost study provided critical assistance to those institutions wanting to mount projects of their own.

Following a similar model but focused entirely on materials published in China, Japan, and Korea, the East Asian Microfilming Project built on the RLIN capacity for CJK® original-scripts cataloging and at the same time provided an opportunity to expand the filming guidelines in new directions.

Great Collections Microfilming Project, Phases I-IV
In 1988, RLG’s third filming project was funded. Based on a new selection approach that acknowledged the historic investments libraries make in certain of their collections, these four phases preserved almost 100,000 volumes. Twenty-two institutions, many of them without any prior experience in managing such efforts, participated in this five-year, $6.7 million project. Also during this project the RLG filming guidelines underwent major revision and were published in a handbook that facilitates their application by organizations worldwide.

Art Serials Preservation Project
This project preserved late 19th- and early 20th-century art serials for continuing access and use. The RLG art community collaborated to identify titles in desperate need of reformatting and for which black-and-white microfilm would be an appropriate use medium. Between late 1990 and early 1994, ten museum and university art libraries identified, prepared, and microfilmed multiyear runs of 83 titles. They also cataloged the master microforms for all filmed titles in the RLG Union Catalog. This increased bibliographic access to the titles and enabled other institutions to determine that the work to preserve these serials had been done.

Archives Preservation Microfilming Project
In this first-of-a-kind project, 13 institutions microfilmed 25 archival and manuscript collections comprising over 1,100 linear feet of records. Personal papers, organizational records, and literary manuscripts are among the materials preserved in the effort. Although archives had been using film technology for decades, procedures had not been standardized nor had cost models been developed. Both of these needs were addressed by participants, and the results were widely disseminated within the archives and preservation communities.

Shared storage facility for members' microfilm masters

In caves deep beneath the hills of western Pennsylvania, RLG leased vaults starting in the 1980s for long-term storage of our members' 35-millimeter master negative microfilm rolls. If an owning institution's microfilm print master was damaged or lost, the master negative could be retrieved from storage to create a replacement. RLG acted as coordinator and broker for the shared facility, billing participating members annually to recoup each one's proportional share of the annual leasing cost. RLG stored several thousand rolls of master negative film that we owned as a result of our grant-funded Great Collections microfilming projects of the 1980s and early 1990s.

RLG worked with Iron Mountain Inc.'s National Underground Storage to create an environment that met the US national standard for preserving research resources captured on 35-millimeter master negative microfilm rolls. Iron Mountain, Inc. maintained the environmental conditions within a very narrow range of temperature and humidity fluctuations, using an uninterruptible power source. Services included ensuring security and managing the film inventory—guaranteeing that film rolls were filed correctly by institution and always accessible.

Guides & tools from this project

Under this project, RLG produced some standard references that are used worldwide:

In 2001-2002, the Projeto Cooperativo Conservação em Bibliotecas e Arquivos, with funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Brazilian Vitae Foundation, translated the RLG Archives Microfilming Manual into Portuguese and distributed copies to 1,800 institutions throughout Brazil. The Manual do RLG para Microfilmagem de Documentos (publication Nr. 53) is available at no charge here.

We are a worldwide library cooperative, owned, governed and sustained by members since 1967. Our public purpose is a statement of commitment to each other—that we will work together to improve access to the information held in libraries around the globe, and find ways to reduce costs for libraries through collaboration.