The Selection And Preparation Of Records For Publication On Microfilm

by Frank B. Evans
Staff Information Paper Number 19 (1970)



The purpose of this staff information paper is to make available, in convenient form, guidelines for selecting and preparing records for microfilm publication. Because each body of records is unique, it is not possible to anticipate every problem concerning selection and preparation that may arise; this paper should therefore be considered more as an aid than as a set of binding instructions not subject to any modification. The archivist must exercise knowledge and judgment with regard to every microfilm publication, but careful attention to these guidelines, which are based upon approved standards and practices, will help ensure the archival quality and the usefulness of the publication.

The Microfilm Publication Program of NARA

The NARA program for publishing records on microfilm is designed to serve several important purposes: (a) to make copies available for use by persons who cannot conveniently visit a depository to examine the originals, (b) to protect records from the damage that would otherwise result from repeated handling, (c) to meet reference requests for records needed in several places at the same time, and (d) to provide insurance against the loss of valuable information in the event the original records are destroyed. Many microfilm publications include a descriptive pamphlet that informs potential users of the nature and scope of the publication and enables them to determine its relevance to their particular interests. The pamphlet also includes information intended to facilitate use of the microfilm edition of the records. The objective of NARA is to have all suitable records that are part of the National Archives of the United States systematically included in this microfilm publication program.

Selecting the Records

There is no simple formula for determining what records are suitable for microfilm publication. A basic requirement is that most of the information contained in the records is not readily available in published form, but the selection process involves a variety of other considerations. Especially important are substantive content, physical characteristics, condition, and status of the records. The archivist's own knowledge of the research value of the records based upon his education and training in research, his understanding of research needs and trends, and the use that has been made of and the interest expressed in certain records by researchers should all be considered in judging the potential value of a specific microfilm publication. The following guidelines should be applied to each body of records to determine its suitability for microfilm publication:

  1. The records should have research value for a variety of studies or should contain basic information for well-established and active fields of research.
  2. Although microfilm publication is particularly suited for voluminous records and especially for long series, there should be a high ratio of information of actual research value compared to the total quantity of the records.
  3. The records should be reasonably complete and not subject to future accessions of any appreciable volume, especially of documents that must be inter filed or added at various places within the original body of records. After records have been microfilmed it is difficult and expensive to incorporate additional documents in the publication, but this should be done if documents were unintentionally omitted.
  4. Records that are restricted for public use should not be published on microfilm. If such records are microfilmed for preservation and are declassified at a later date, they may then be published. Restricted documents are sometimes filmed separately as the last roll of a microfilm publication.
  5. Adequate attention should be given to the physical condition of the records and to the amount of necessary rehabilitation work. Records to be filmed should be put in good condition to avoid any possible damage that could result from handling.
  6. Records should be filmed only when legible microfilm copies can be obtained. If original documents are legible, the low reduction rate (Footnote 1) used in microfilming will usually produce microphotographs containing all essential record detail. Thus records that are of uniform or nearly uniform size, and whose paper and inks are of uniform color and shade, are especially suited for microfilming. Some record detail may be lost in the reproduction, however, (a) if documents contain very small writing or print, (b) if there is poor light-reflecting contrast between the text and the paper, as in the case of yellowish or faded ink or colored or darkened papers, (c) if the documents, such as maps, are in varying colors, or (d) if many of the documents are oversize. Occasional oversize documents can be photographed satisfactorily in overlapping sections at a comparatively low rate of reduction.
  7. Careful attention must be given to the existing arrangement of the records from the standpoint of potential users and to the need for further arrangement work before filming. Should the value of a particular publication justify extensive and detailed arrangement, that work should be planned to avoid interrupting or impeding the microfilm publication program.
  8. If records are selected for publication because of their relationship to a particular subject, other records relating to the same subject should be considered for publication. Once selected, all records relating to the same subject should be published, if possible, in close succession.

Additional considerations may be applicable to particular bodies of records. No one consideration should necessarily be the determining factor in selecting records for microfilm publication, but all of them are relevant to the value, the usability, and the cost of the publication.

Determining the Scope of the Publication

Records selected for microfilm publication with due regard for the preceding guidelines should then be reviewed to determine the limits and character of each publication. As a general rule a microfilm publication should include entire archival series. The piecemeal preparation of a microfilm publication -- the filming of only parts of series or of selected documents -- is seldom economical and frequently results in an unsatisfactory product of limited value. Disposable items, duplicates, and records of insignificant research value generally should be omitted from the publication. Because document-by-document determinations of research value are not feasible, the entire series should be microfilmed when records of little research value cannot readily be segregated and omitted. All omissions from the microfilm publication should be noted on the explanatory insert pages for the information of the user of the film.

Although publication should generally be confined to and include an entire series, special circumstances may justify the omission of parts of series or the inclusion in one publication of several series from one or more record groups. Valuable publications have been made of wholly discrete sub series relating to some special subject, function, or geographic area, such as Interior Department Territorial Papers, Idaho, 1864-90 (M191). Several series from a single record group have been selected to produce such publications as Records of the 10th Military Department, 1846-51 (M210), and Investigation and Trial Papers Relating to the Assassination of President Lincoln (M599). Parts of series from more than one record group have been published as Records Relating to the United States Surveying Expedition to the North Pacific Ocean, 1852-63 (M88), and as History of the Philippine Insurrection Against the United States, 1899-1903, and Documents Relating to the War Department Project for Publishing the History (M719). In addition, individual documents from many series in a variety of record groups have been combined for the microfilm supplement to the printed volume of records relating to Wisconsin Territory (M236).

The scope of each microfilm publication should be carefully determined, and all significant variations from the "entire series" guideline should be fully explained on the insert pages.

Arranging and Processing the Records

The arrangement of records at both the file unit and item levels must be perfected before the records are filmed as it is not practicable to rearrange the image on a film. Occasionally, even though records may be in perfect order, it will be necessary to alter their arrangement temporarily to produce a microfilm copy that can be used more easily. In general, the following guidelines regarding arrangement should be applied:

  1. Indexes, registers, and other similar finding aids should be filmed before the records they govern. Thus an index or register at the end of a volume should be filmed before the records contained in the volume. If the index or register pages are not in correct alphabetical or numerical order, instructions to change the filming sequence should be given to the camera operator.
  2. Blank pages should not be filmed, but if blank pages are numbered an explanation of the omission should be included in the introduction if the situation is general or in the notes on the specific roll involved.
  3. If the back of unbound documents or the last page of bound documents contains endorsements or numbers, such data should be filmed before the text of the documents.
  4. Enclosures should be filmed immediately after letters of transmittal. If there are two or more enclosures and neither the transmitting document nor markings on the enclosures indicate their proper order, they should be filmed according to their serial numbers or, if these are lacking, according to their dates.
  5. Guide cards and folder labels should be filmed only when they contain identifying or explanatory information helpful to the user of the film. If filmed, they should precede the records to which they relate.
  6. As previously indicated, duplicates and disposable items should be removed from the records or so identified that the camera operator will not film them. Records of insignificant research value, if they are in readily segregable groups, should also be removed or so identified to prevent their being filmed. All such omissions, however, should be explained in the introduction of the publication or on explanatory insert sheets at the appropriate places on the film.
  7. Published material, even though an integral part of a record series, should not be filmed if it is protected by copyright. The omission of such material should be indicated by filming the title page of the publication along with an insert sheet explaining that the text has not been filmed.

In addition to the above considerations, the archivist processing records for microfilm publication should prepare each record item for the camera as carefully as copy is prepared for a printer -- and with the knowledge that there will be no proofs for the correction of errors intermediate to the issuance of the final product. Such processing usually involves the following steps:

  1. Removing all clips, brads, staples, and other fasteners from folders and from multi page documents with an appropriate tool to prevent tearing or otherwise damaging the documents.
  2. Loosening or removing ribbons or other types of fasteners affixed to documents so that they can be opened sufficiently to permit microfilming.
  3. Flattening documents to eliminate creases and wrinkles (if humidification is not required), and cleaning and repairing very brittle or badly torn pages to the extent necessary to obtain a complete and flat image.
  4. Checking every document in every folder or other file unit to make certain that all documents are available or accounted for and that they are in their proper sequence.
  5. Checking the numerical sequence and the order of all pages in multi page documents and noting all omissions; noting missing parts of pages, stains, tears, or obliterations that affect the text of any document, and noting all other irregularities that affect the archival character and legibility of the material. NARA
  6. Examining every bound volume page by page for completeness and continuity, noting all missing pages, pages out of order, mutilations, and other irregularities.

When bound volumes, such as press-copy books, contain pages so thin that the text of succeeding pages shows through, the camera operator should be instructed to back each page with opaque white paper before filming the page. All torn or cut pages should have interleaving to call attention to the missing parts. When documents are so tightly bound that text near the binding may be illegible or lost through shadowing or loss of camera focus, the binding should be loosened or, if necessary, cut before filming. Bindings should be loosened or cut only when absolutely necessary. With most bound volumes the use of a book cradle (Footnote 2) by the camera operator will insure a satisfactory image.

Determining Roll Breaks

After the records have been arranged and processed for filming, they should be divided to correspond to the projected rolls. Although rolls averaging 100 feet in length represent the maximum utilization of film, this ideal can rarely be realized in practice. The archivist should aim at a roll of film about 85 feet in length, including the leader and trailer (a total of some 6 feet of blank film at the beginning and at the end of the roll needed in most microfilm readers for threading and rewinding the roll). This procedure will permit an average tolerance of 10 feet in either direction, and it will minimize damage in handling the completed film copy.

The number of images that can be placed on a roll of film will vary with the reduction ratio, the size of the documents, and the image placement on the film. For most archival material, which is reproduced on 35-mm. film, the reduction ratio will range from 10-to-l to 15-to-l. Image placement is determined not only by the size and type of the documents, but also by their legibility. The four accepted image placements for film, with the symbols used to indicate each, are as follows:

  1. Placement IA.
    A single page reproduced lengthwise on the film, with the text at right angles to the edges of the film.
  2. Placement IB.
    A single page filmed with the text parallel to the edges of the film.
  3. Placement IIA.
    A double page filmed with texts at right angles to the edges of the film.
  4. Placement IIB.
    A double page filmed with texts parallel to the edges of the film.

Placement IB -- a single page exposure with the text parallel to the edges of the film -- is the usual image placement for most manuscript material.

An inexperienced person should begin by counting individual documents in terms of number of exposures to determine the number of pages, folders, inches, or boxes of records that can be reproduced on a roll of film. On the basis of this experience estimates may then be made for records of the same physical type and size. In making such estimates it should be remembered that filming both sides of a single page requires two exposures, and that allowances must be made for the type and thickness of the paper and the size of the documents. As a general guideline, if the reduction ratio of 14-to-l and the usual image placement of lB are used, an 85-foot roll of film will accommodate about 1,000 exposures or images of letter-size material. This total may also be expressed as 12 images -- but not necessarily 12 documents or pages -- per foot of film.

The estimate for each roll of film must be made with regard for the physical arrangement of the records in order to determine their actual division into projected rolls. Careful attention must be given to the dividing points because they help to simplify the preparation of insert pages and add significantly to the ease with which the final product can be used. An exact indication -- by volume, file unit, or document -- must be made as to where one roll will end and the next one will begin. A marker should be inserted among the records at each such point. To be systematic and bibliographically acceptable, roll breaks should be made in terms of the following guidelines:

  1. In a chronological series of unbound records, the breaks should be made at the end of years or, if necessary to best utilize the space available on a given roll, at the end of quarters or of months,
  2. In an alphabetical series of unbound records, the breaks should be made between letters of the alphabet or at logical places within the same letter in the case of voluminous name files.
  3. In series of subject or numerical files or of bound volumes, the breaks should be made between two folders or at the end of a volume.

When it is estimated that three volumes will require two full rolls of film, planning to film each volume on a separate roll will not only facilitate its use but will also simplify the task of describing the content of each roll. A separate index that pertains to two or more volumes filmed on two or more rolls usually should be filmed on each roll. An index or other finding aid for a single volume or for the documents filmed on a single roll should be reproduced at the beginning of that roll. In summary, roll breaks should be carefully planned and should be logical and systematic.

The division of records into projected rolls should be recorded in sufficient detail to aid in the preparation of all necessary title pages, roll notes, and targets. The information on roll breaks will also be necessary for preparing the introduction, any special lists, targets, and the table of contents for the microfilm publication.

Describing the Records

A microfilm publication provides the user with an exact copy of each record filmed, but he is nevertheless unable to visualize the actual body of original records as it is identified and arranged. The use of descriptive insert pages in the publication, ranging from an introduction to targets, is intended to help offset this disadvantage. The preparation of this descriptive material is an integral part of the prefilming arrangement and the processing work on each microfilm publication. In preparing most of this material the descriptive pamphlets, which are available for a wide variety of microfilm publications, should be used as guides.

Preparing Insert Pages

For every microfilm publication the following insert pages should be prepared for editing and submitted in draft form -- typed and double spaced:

Title Page,
Introduction, and
Table of Contents.

Depending upon the specific publication, additional insert pages may also be needed for:

Special Lists,
Roll Notes, and

Title Page

Each roll of a microfilm publication requires a title page containing the following information:
  1. The program title -- "NATIONAL ARCHIVES MICROFILM PUBLICATIONS" -- and the serial number of the publication in the form "Microfilm Publication M___." The serial number will be assigned upon request by the Product Development and Distribution Staff.

  2. The title of the particular microfilm publication. Generally the title should be recommended by the unit having custody of the records; it should be as precise and as brief as possible, but it should also fully identify the publication. For individual record series, the title of the microfilm publication should be based upon but not necessarily identical with the series title as it is given in inventories and in other finding aids.
    Whenever possible, the publication title should indicate the type of records, the name of the agency or the title of the official whose records constitute the publication, and the inclusive dates of the records. Variations in this pattern are sometimes necessary to accommodate selected records from several series that may be in more than one record group.
  3. The roll number within the publication. Roll numbers are not used for one-roll publications.
  4. A brief indication of the content of the roll -- subtitle, if any, volume number, inclusive dates, inclusive letters of the alphabet, or other comparable data.


An introduction should be prepared for each microfilm publication. The introduction should be filmed after the title page on the initial roll and, with very few exceptions, on each succeeding roll of every publication. The purpose of the introduction is to provide the researcher with general information about the publication that will best facilitate its use. The introduction is not intended to be a monograph about the agency or official who accumulated the records or about the subject content of the records. It should be concise and objective, and it should present information in a logical manner. The introduction should generally include the following elements:
  1. An opening statement indicating the scope of the publication and a brief description of the records reproduced: the series title(s) and the physical form of the records -- volumes, unbound documents, or press copies -- their inclusive dates, and, if it can be determined in advance, the number of rolls in the publication. Mention should also be made of any readily available finding aids that relate specifically to the records filmed.
  2. Information about the history and functions of the agency, the history of the records, and any markings on the records that are necessary for understanding the use of the records involved in the publication.
  3. A statement of the research value of the records in terms of any significant subject content that is not obvious in the title of the publication.
  4. A statement as detailed and specific as is necessary to indicate the arrangement of the original records and an explanation of any variations between the original arrangement and that of the microfilm edition. Specific mention should be made of any omission of disposable items, duplicates, or documents of insignificant research value.
  5. A statement identifying the microfilmed records in terms of their record group title and number, the subgroups of which they are a part (if applicable), and their series title, and also providing information on closely related records in the same record group or subgroup. If the related records have been microfilmed, the title and number of the microfilm publication should be given. If the publication consists of records selected from one or several series, their full identification should be supplemented by a statement on the criteria that governed the selection and an explanation of how the criteria were applied to the records.
  6. Information regarding any special lists, select or document lists, filing schemes, appendixes, or other supplementary finding aids that are filmed after the introduction and before the table of contents.
  7. A statement about closely related records in other record groups, provided such records can readily be identified from published finding aids. If any of these records have been microfilmed, the title and the number of the microfilm publication should be given.
  8. The names of the staff members who arranged and processed the records for filming and who prepared the descriptive material should be given at the end of the introduction.

Table of Contents

The table of contents should include a list of the rolls and a brief description of the records reproduced on each roll. This information is usually obtained from the title pages and targets. Although one-roll publications generally do not have a table of contents, a descriptive list is provided under the heading of contents for some types of records.

Special Lists

If the records to be filmed are described only in general terms in a published finding aid, or if their nature or research value justifies further descriptive work, a supplementary finding aid may be prepared with the approval of the head of the unit having custody of the records. Such a finding aid, generally referred to for convenience as a special list, may fill an obvious need where no finding aid exists, may complete or perfect existing but inadequate finding aids, or may supplement general finding aids with more detailed information.
A special list may take the form of an index, an appendix, a document list, a file-headings list or file scheme, or a listing of similar types of information some of which may be obtained from roll notes, if any. Guidelines for the preparation of special lists are given in Staff Information Paper 17 (Revised). Special lists for a microfilm publication should usually be filmed after the introduction and before the table of contents, but if applicable only to some rolls of the publication, the lists should be filmed before the records to which they relate. Only special lists that apply to the entire microfilm publication will be included in the descriptive pamphlet.

Roll Notes

Notes relating to records on a particular roll should be prepared when necessary, and the notes should be filmed immediately after the introduction or special list on that roll (or after the contents on roll 1 of a multi roll publication). Such notes are not used for single-roll publications. Roll notes should be as concise as possible, but should include all essential information specifically applicable to the records filmed on the roll and omitted in the introduction because not generally applicable to the publication.
  1. If volume or series titles and the information provided in the introduction are not sufficient to describe adequately the records reproduced on the roll, further descriptive or explanatory data should be given.
  2. If there are significant variations in the arrangement of the records reproduced on the roll from the general pattern of arrangement stated in the introduction, the variations should be indicated and, if possible, accounted for.
  3. All significant omissions and irregularities in the records reproduced on the roll, such as missing documents and pages or blank numbered pages not filmed, should be noted unless such information is included in the introduction.
  4. Roll notes may also be used to explain file citations, annotations, or other markings that may be on the records reproduced on a specific roll.


Targets are insert sheets that identify in the briefest way possible the records that are to follow. Targets should be inserted and filmed after the title page or introduction (or special list or roll notes, if any) on each roll or after the table of contents on roll 1 of a multi roll publication, and at the appropriate places throughout the publication. The information that the target provides will vary according to its purpose.
  1. Each target should give both the roll number and the target number. Each set of targets begins with the numeral 1 for each new roll. There is no target 1 if there are no other targets on the same roll.
  2. In addition, targets that indicate divisions on the roll need give only a volume number, or inclusive dates, or other breakdown of the records, if such brief legends, together with the information on title page or roll notes, adequately identify the records on that roll.
  3. Targets should also be prepared and inserted where folder labels, file guides, or similar identification needed for the use of the records cannot be filmed. Gaps or deliberate omissions in the records should be stated in the roll note if applicable to a specific roll. The archivist may also use a slip sheet or card among the records to indicate missing numbers or letters if the quantity of omissions is extensive.

After the draft title pages, introduction, and contents, and any special lists, roll notes, and targets have been approved and have been edited by the Product Development and Distribution Staff, format typed copy of all insert pages is prepared by that unit for use in filming the records and is forwarded to the project unit. The person who prepared the records for filming will place each insert page in its proper position among the records before they are sent to the camera operator.

Preparing Special Instructions to the Camera Operator

Depending upon the availability of experienced camera operators, it may also be necessary for the archivist preparing the records for filming to prepare special written instructions for the use of the camera operator. When necessary these instructions, which should be transmitted through the Product Development and Distribution Staff, should include:

  1. The order of filming, especially concerning volumes whose contents are out of order, end-of-volume indexes and registers, endorsements, and enclosures.
  2. The method for handling specific documents and types of records that require special attention and that have not been individually tagged with instructions, including documents that are to be omitted and those that are oversize, torn or with parts of pages missing, and poor in color contrast and legibility.

Decisions regarding special handling are the responsibility of the archivist planning and preparing the publication and should be made during the prefilming work, rather than left to the discretion of a camera operator unfamiliar with the records.

Inspecting the Negative Film

Ideally, every roll of processed film in each publication should be carefully checked exposure by exposure against the original documents by the person responsible for preparing the publication. Inspection should be done with extreme care on a clean microfilm reader that will not scratch or mark the film in any way. Careful inspection is necessary to ensure complete coverage, the legibility of each exposure, and the proper documentation of the publication; i.e., the sequence and content of every insert page, and the placement and legibility of frame numbers. Retakes should be ordered for every unsatisfactory exposure, and the retakes should be similarly inspected.

The first completed rolls for each publication should be inspected immediately after filming so that any omissions, errors, or misinterpretations of filming instructions can be detected at the outset and revised or additional instructions prepared and issued. If the filming has been done by experienced camera operators, it is usually necessary to inspect only select rolls, including one of the first completed rolls.

Preparing a Descriptive Pamphlet

After the introduction, any special lists, and the table of contents have been filmed, they are returned to the Product Development and Distribution Staff for conversion into a descriptive pamphlet for the microfilm publication. A cover page with the title of the publication and an inside cover page giving the record group title and number are prepared and precede the description. Any special lists created for the publication are usually placed before the table of contents.

Before any descriptive pamphlets are reprinted, they should be referred to the appropriate custodial unit for possible updating and any correction.


Footnote 1 - Reduction rate is the ratio of a linear dimension of the object to the corresponding dimension of the image on film. Thus if a document is 12 inches long and the corresponding dimension on film is 1 inch, the rate of reduction is 12 to 1. This ratio is also expressed as a reduction of 12 diameters, as reduced 12 times, or sometimes as a 12X reduction. Return to Document Text

Footnote 2 - The book cradle used in the National Archives resembles a wooden box with a hinged top of plate glass. Inside the box are two adjustable platforms to support both sides of a book so that the pages will be level when the glass top is lowered. Wooden rods of various diameters may be inserted through the binding of the volume to elevate the center. Many modern microfilm cameras have a built-in hydraulic system that functions as a book cradle. Return to Document Text

Note: This web version was prepared in 1999, based on:
Frank B. Evans, The Selection And Preparation Of Records For Publication On Microfilm, Staff Information Paper Number 19, Published by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, 1970: 14 pages.
This version may differ from the printed version.