The Actual and Potential Role of Microforms in British Historical Research


Alan Macfarlane


[ From Microform Review vol.12, no.2. Spring 1983]



British history is replete with documents, manuscripts and other written records. Owing to favorable historical and climatic conditions and a long-standing tradition of antiquarian research, this immense body of archival material has been remarkably ",ell preserved. Its reproduction and dissemination, which began with the era of book publication, has been greatly augmented-the author believes-by microform technology. After citing numerous outstanding accomplishments in the field, he proceeds to identify the many as-yet-untouched

British historical sources whose micropublication would benefit scholars. Then, in imagination, he embraces the era into which he feels we are now moving-that of the confluence of microform, videodisc and computer technology.






Although this article is titled 'British historical re-

search,' it is in practice almost totally limited to

English history. There are two reasons for this lim-

itation. First, my own professional competence is

in the field of English records; and second, with

only one or two notable exceptions, there has so

far been little use of microforms in making available

the less extensive yet very considerable archives of

Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I hope many of the

general points here made in reference to England

will be applicable to the other parts of Britain, where

micropublishing has hardly started.


     One reason for the enormous potential of the

micropublication of English records is the records'

immense quantity and quality. The extant English

historical documents are among the most continuous

and diverse in the world. England is a small country,

yet a number of pressures made it create and keep

more records than many larger states and empires.

The English have for many centuries depended

heavily on writing, on making records on paper and

parchment. Their unusual, early established, and

centralized politico-legal system, whose courts and

departments regulated life through written processes

from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries, pro-

duced a vast body of material, most of it still buried

in obscurity. Likewise, the English landholding sys-

tem, which has remained intact from the twelfth to


the twentieth centuries, produced and retained for

its later use a mass of documentary material. The

political and social forces which led to the creation

of the documents also contributed to the belief that

old documents were still relevant to present needs,

hence encouraging preservation.


    The preservation of ancient archives was facili-

tated by other advantageous conditions. England

has never been fought over by large destructive

armies in such a way as to destroy large numbers

of records. Nor have there been violent revolutions

among whose aims was the destruction of all records

of the past. Furthermore, the temperate climate and

the absence of record-destroying termites make re-

cord preservation moderately easy. It is still pos-

sible to pick up a parchment or even a paper sheet

written five hundred years ago and find it in better

condition than a book printed in the last ten years.

Partly as a result of this superb survival of doc-

uments, but also a cause of their survival, is the

ancient and still active tradition of antiquarian re-

search. The emphasis on precedent, on the rele-

vance of the past in law and custom, combined with

curiosity and a love of one's particular comer of

England, led to an intense and early interest in re-

search into early documents and the physical re-

mains of the past. The presence of a large, literate,

middling group of professional people--of clergy,

lawyers, minor gentry and others, in London and

throughout the counties-led to the formation of

numerous historical societies. The energies which

in some European countries went into the study of




Dr. Alan Macfarlane is Reader in Historical An-

thropology at the University of Cambridge and Fel-

low of King's College, Cambridge.









the material culture and lore of the 'folk' or peas-

ants, in England went into the study and ordering

of documents, which in time led to the massive

collections no", found in public. local and private



    Historians of the future will probably see three

major phases in the technology of making this mass

of records more widely available. The first phase

lasted roughly from I800 to 1960 and may be termed

the Print Era. It was a!, the period w hen the predom-

inant mode of the reproduction of original manu-

scripts and reprint, of earlier books " as in hardcopy

as published books. It was inaugurated in 1800 by

the establishment of The Historical Manuscripts

Commission. which initiated a systematic survey

of the holdings of public and private collections.

From 1840 on. this effort was supplemented by the

numerous reports of the Deputy Keeper of the Pub-

lic Record Office and. much later, by the reports

of the National Register of Archives. The great

English libraries then began to issue catalogues of

their printed book- and manuscript collections. The

publication of exact transcriptions of original doc-

uments was largely the work of the various record

societies. Especially notable were the publications

of the Camden Society (1838-) and those of the

Selden Society ( 1888-). At about the same time.

local record societies were established, the Surtees

Society ( 1835-) and the Chetham Society ( 1844-)

being two o of the earliest and most distinguished. In

the decade from 1834 to 1844 alone, the Camden,

Parker, Percy, Shakespeare, Aelfric. Caxton and

Sydenham societies-all devoted to the editing and

publication of historical and literary manuscripts-

",ere founded. Later, publications by such distin-

guished bodies as the Early English Text Society

and others made many other works available.


    By about 1960, many thousands of volumes, in-

cluding reprints of some of the early classics from

printing presses as well as abstracts or full tran-

scripts of documents, had been published. But three

things ",ere becoming increasingly apparent. The

first looks at the very slow pace of publication. At a

very rough guess, by 1950, of the printed books

produced in Britain or the Empire up to 1800, less

than one percent were available in modem editions.

Thus, a library or individual who wanted to build

up a research collection in early books would have

to spend many years searching for them, and even

then would, in all probability, only be able to obtain

a small selection. Turning to the publication of man-

uscript sources in printed for-m, the situation was

much worse. Probably less than one-tenth of one

percent of the surviving manuscripts for the period

up to 1850 were in printed form. At that rate of

publication, it would be many centuries before the

task could be completed. The second obvious fact

was that the production costs would be prohibitive.

Even before the dramatic rise in publishing costs,

few could afford to publish and few to buy the

products. Publications tended to be issued in very

small runs and soon went out of print. Even gov-

ernment bodies could only afford to publish very

slowly. In the 1970s, the costs were so high that

many historical societies almost ceased to publish.

The third fact was the problem of space. Even the

modest results of a century and a half of publication

more than filled the handsome Selden End of the

Bodleian Library at Oxford. No private individual

could hope to house what was coming out, and

many librarians were running out of space as well.

Fortunately, it was at this point that the second

major technological phase commenced, partly in

answer to the problems above and partly as a result

of developments in photography. This phase, which

may be called the Microform Era, started slowly in

the late 1930s and gathered momentum as the costs

of printing escalated in the 1970s. Although we are

still in the middle of it, a supplementary phase, to

which we shall refer later, makes the present an

appropriate time to discuss what has been done and

what still needs to be done.


     The first achievement of microform technology

(which almost eliminates the problem of space, dra-

matically lowers the cost of reproduction, and hence

hastens the process of making materials more widely

available) was to make early printed books and pe-

riodicals more accessible. And it will soon be pos-

sible, through the work of UMI (for all abbreviations,

see end), to obtain copies of all the early printed

books in the Short Title Catalogue (1475-1640), of

the immense collection of the Thomason Tracts

(some 22,000 of them), and of many other volumes

printed before 1700. This will shortly be supple-

mented by every item printed in the British Empire

from 1701 to 1800 (RPI). This is an immense ad-

vance and makes it possible for a scholar in any

major library to have access to all the printed ma-

terial from much of the English-speaking world up

to 1800. Future developments in technology will

make it possible to extend this coverage to 1950,

an achievement inconceivable just a few years ago.






    Such work involves the photographic reproduc-

tion of the collections of not only the great libraries

such as the Bodleian or the British but of smaller

libraries also. For example, the seventeenth -century

pamphlets of Lincoln Cathedral Library have been

filmed (WMP). Many collections of early periodi-

cals and newspapers have also been reproduced.

Another group of publications which would repay

further investigation is that of printed ephemera-

the almanacks, chapbooks, broadsheets and bal-

lads-which exist in the hundreds of thousands from

the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Only, a small

number of them have been published, in selections

from the Pepys and other collections. As one can

readily see, there is still much to do. Nevertheless,

more has been made available in the last fifteen

years than in the preceding one hundred fifty.


    The second achievement was to make more widely

available records which had already been printed

but were hard to obtain because of cost. small print

runs, or the difficulty of storage. Here I am mainly

thinking of calendars and transcripts of documents.

One example was the publication of selected doc-

uments from the Public Record Office. Notable are

the republication of the complete Journals of the

House of Lords and the House of Commons from

1509 to the present (P), and of the Parliamentary

Debates of this century, originally published by

Hansard (P). For the study of recent history, the

publication of British Government Serial Publica-

tions (1922-1977) is also important (HDI). A great

deal still remains to be done. Many of the calendars

in the Public Record Office, the nineteenth-century

'Blue Books,' and other government publications

would merit reproduction in microform.


    Another branch of this work is the publication

on microfiche of the more than 1,300 volumes of

the English Record Societies and the Index Library

(CH). This makes available to researchers through-

out the world the careful work of a century and a

half of local experts who have transcribed wills,

diaries, manorial accounts, quarter sessions records

and many other local records. Here, as in the pre-

vious instances, microform adds its strength to print

and makes the records much more widely available.

One imagines that this process will expand and con-

tinue. Particular collections of printed material will

become available on microform, as have the ar-

chives of the British Liberal Party, the Independent

Labour Party and the British Conservative Party (H)

and likewise many of the books and pamphlets con-

cerning the British Trades Union movement (WMP).

At a rough guess, we can estimate that perhaps five

percent of everything that was published and still

survives from 1475 to 1950 is now available on

microform. If the present pace and methods are

maintained, we might extrapolate that this estimate

would rise to 50 percent or more by the end of the

century, a very major achievement. But what has

been published is only a tip of the iceberg, and

merely by building on the Gutenberg technology,

microform cannot hope to accelerate access to orig-

inal documentation.


     Here we may note a further development, which

has occurred only during the last few years-the

harnessing of microform to the computer by way

of COM (computer output microforms). The pos-

sibility of writing directly onto microfiche with the

computer offers new possibilities for

overcoming the slowness and massive costs of editing

and typesetting on printing presses. Two experi-

ments may be mentioned: The codebooks to ac-

company the surveys deposited in the Social Science

Research Council archive have been turned into

COM (OMP). and the more than eight thousand

pages of verbatim transcripts of all the documents

relating to an English village from 1400-1750 have

been published on COM (CH), as have some of the

records of a Scottish parish (CH). Since I co-di-

rected the English village project, I know that the

choice was between trying to publish the documents

at a prohibitive cost or issuing them directly from

the computer at a cost (and in a reduced form) that

would make them attractive to libraries. As histo-

rians and government departments begin to use

computers more, such a technique will undoubtedly

become ever more common.


    Probably less than a one-hundredth part of the

'documents' (interpreted broadly to include paint-

ings, drawings, and sketches) of the past have ever

been published. Therefore, if microform is to con-

tribute seriously to the dissemination of historical

materials (the problem with which earlier publishers

grappled), it will need to address the publication of

original manuscripts. Here it has an immense ad-

vantage. Historians are very eager to see documents

in the original. The best editors, even if they can

provide a full transcript, are forced to make deci-

sions which may inadvertently distort meaning.

Publications of photographic reproductions of orig-

inal documents have hitherto faced technological

challenges of enormous difficulty, or simply been






too expensive. Microform has transformed the sit-

uation, and some indications of what may be

achieved are already appearing.


    We may started chronologically with collections

of medieval manuscripts. Already, the medieval

manuscripts of Trinity College. Cambridge (WMP),

Lincoln Cathedral Library (WMP). Warden and

Fellow's Library of Winchester College (WMP),

and Lambeth Palace Library (WMP) have been pub-

lished on microfilm. But much greater treasures

await us, particularly in the manuscripts of the three

great libraries-the British Library, and those of

Oxford and Cambridge. Major Treasures in the

Bodleian Library (0MP) has already begun to ex-

plore one of these repositories and has, incidentally,

helped to confirm the claim that microfiche makes

possible the reproduction of the most delicate and

beautiful of medieval coloured illuminations in a

way which would be prohibitively difficult and ex-

pensive for the conventional print publisher. Yet

less than five percent of the pre-1475 material is

thus far available on microform. To cover the rest

is no doubt a task to which micropublishers are

present],,, addressing themselves.


    The other major repositories of medieval docu-

ments are the record offices, particularly the Public

Record Office. Here the work has hardly started.

One exception is the English Legal Manuscripts

project (IDC), which commenced with the manu-

scripts in the Harvard Law School Library. Al-

though this project excludes the record sources

themselves (e.g., the massive plea rolls and local

court records) it includes the readings, year books

and early case reports, and hence provides im-

mensely valuable sources from the thirteenth to

eighteenth centuries.


    The bulk of the records themselves increases from

the early sixteenth century, and only a few small

dents have so far been made in the reproduction of

them. A notable project is to reproduce the unpub-

lished State Papers of the sixteenth and seventeenth

centuries. The dimensions of the problem posed by

such a project can be seen by the fact that fifty-nine

reels of microfilm were needed to cover the State

Papers Domestic for the years 1569-1585 (H) and

another twenty-eight reels for selections from the

period of the English Civil War and Interregnum

(H). It is an extremely important and useful project.

Another ambitious project extracted many docu-

ments, particularly Foreign Office material, from

the eighteenth to twentieth centuries for the study

of World History from British National Archives'

(KTO). Yet another set of records, those from the

India Office Archive and Library dealing with one

part of England's relations with her Empire, has

been photographed. Yet these projects are only mild

assaults on the problem. A very brief enumeration

of that which has scarcely been touched will give

some idea of the potential.


     The massive records of the central administra-

tion, the charter, patent, close and fine rolls and

inquisitions post mortem, and many other types of

documents are untouched. The central financial rec-

ords, the overwhelming records of the Exchequer,

the Treasury and certain parts of the Chancery are

(with the very slight exception of the extracts from

the Interregnum state papers already mentioned) un-

touched. The impressive and intriguing records of

the central courts, the common law courts of King's

Bench, Common Pleas, the equity courts, the cen-

tral prerogative courts (for example, Star Chamber

and Requests) are totally untouched. Most of these

records have not been examined since they were

first set down, and they were often written in huge

volumes, which are extremely difficult to handle.

To search them is beyond the ability of the present-

day historian. A project to reproduce them photo-

graphically would be an immeasurable service to

historians and would open up possibilities for re-

search only vaguely dreamed of by the great Vic-

torians. But even the advances of contemporary

microform technology are hardly up to this task,

because of the prohibitive cost of the camera work,

all of which must be done manually.


    Then there are the many smaller but still impor-

tant repositories which hold other types of records.

There are the records of businesses, companies and

guilds, as yet scarcely touched. There are the ar-

chives of church authorities. Here a start has been

made by the micropublication of the records at Lam-

beth Palace (WMP) and of the Court of Arches

(CH). Specific religious bodies-for example, the

English Benedictine Congregation (OMI)-have also

been covered. But most of the episcopal, archidi-

aconal and parish records, as well as the records of

religious organizations such as the major Noncon-

formist groups, the Missionary societies, and the

like, still await publication. There are the archives

produced by the manorial jurisdictions. There are

the court rolls, deeds, rentals, surveys and maps,

which are scattered in public and private reposito-

ries all over the country. They are so extensive that







it has not been possible to publish all the surviving

documents from one well-documented manor. But

microform techniques could transform this situation.

Finally, we may turn to the archives created by

individuals. Of course. the most personal of these

,archives' are diaries and autobiographies, only a

few of which have been published in microform;

the complete diaries of Beatrice Webb (CH), for

example. Many other as-yet-unpublished diaries ex-

ist, as do many hundreds of thousands of letters.

The letter books of Charles James Blomfield, Bishop

of London (M), are an example of a use of micro-

fiche which could be much more extensive. There

are also numerous travellers' narratives, account

books, and other personal papers which merit pub-

lication. Some individuals own collections of pho-

tographs and other mementoes which microform

can capture. If those individuals also happen to be

major landowners, businessmen, or important

professional figures, there may be ",hole collections

of family papers. Many private families or record

offices have important family archives which cannot

be made available in published form and yet deserve

wider attention. There is scarcely an,,, microform

publication of estate or public office papers of



    Mention has been made of old photographs. Mi-

croform, as was forcibly pointed out in a previous

issue of this magazine (Vol.8, No.3), is turning out

to be an ideal medium in which to make available

visual materials which conventional publishing finds

too expensive to reproduce. Early maps, surveys

and tithe awards could be reproduced, as well as

the extensive materials of the ordnance survey. Al-

ready the possibilities of the publication of early

musical scores are being explored through the mi-

crofilm publication of the Oxford Music School

Collections at the Bodleian (H). And the seventeen

thousand satirical prints in the British Library are

now on microfilm (CH). Many exciting extensions

of this approach remain to be explored. For ex-

ample, the aerial photographic surveys of England

made at various times might one day be suited for

microform, if a technique can be developed for

rendering low-contrast materials. Likewise, the very

large collections of material objects from the past,

whether relics of the earlier culture of Britain in

museums of rural, industrial or upper-class life, or

trophies of the Empire in the ethnographic mu-

seums, would translate excellently onto microform.


    We have surveyed a few of the potentials. It

would now be wise to look at some of the remaining

problems of current microfilm and microfiche tech-

nology, as far as the practicing historian is con-

cerned. First, there remains the problem of cost.

Although microform reduces the cost of publica-

tion, often by a factor of ten or more, this saving

is partly offset by the increase in the scale of the

projects undertaken. Although it is usually possible

to buy one or two reels or some fiches at a small

cost, the person who wishes to have the whole of

an English village's documents or the medieval

manuscripts of Lincoln Cathedral Library at his fin-

gertips will have to pay hundreds, if not thousands.

of pounds. Most of the microforms, therefore, tend

to remain in a few big libraries. Nowadays, record

offices and town libraries cannot easily buy some-

thing costing a thousand pounds. Even the price of

a microfiche/microfilm reader is enough to daunt

some smaller institutions and private individuals.


    A second problem lies in the use of microforms.

Some of the difficulties of access, such as having

to wind through a reel, were overcome with mi-

crofiche. But the historian who wishes to move

quickly, from place to place still faces some diffi-

culties and prefers to use the familiar sheets of pa-

per. Another advantage of print publication is that

one can consult several pages or passages more or

less simultaneously-an index and a text, for ex-

ample. One partial solution to this problem has been

to provide dual texts in hardcopy and fiche. This is

especially important when a guide and an index to

the records are provided, since they must be con-

sulted while searching through the microform. But

this solution has created a new problem for the

librarian. To illustrate from my own experience:

The British Library stores fiches and booklets in

separate places, and it was only a chance encounter

with the librarian which brought the two together,

at least in my case. Another problem came to light

when a student arrived who had had to spend weeks

searching sequentially through some microfiches

because the accompanying hardcopy booklets had

been stolen. It is clear, therefore, that it would be

worthwhile to produce both a hardcopy and a mi-

croform version of any introductory material . Such

introductory material and finding aids become more

and more important as microforms are increasingly

used to access original documents. Many of these

documents are strangely organized, written in dif-

ficult script, and produced by little-known institu-

tional processes. Merely to reproduce them without





a careful introduction describing how they were

selected, how they were produced. and their pa-

laeographic and other problems. is to undermine

their value.


    On the positive side, one problem microforms

have effectively eliminated is that of space. All the

microfiches and microfilms yet produced would not

cause a librarian of historical materials great prob-

lems to store. And microfiche is especially efficient,

in that it allows random access also.


    Thus, the present situation is that a good deal has

been done to make much of the early printed ma-

terials of English history available, but that only a

fraction of the unprinted material is as yet in mi-

croform. Scarcely an,,- of the unprinted sources from

other parts of Britain . tain have been touched. If a way

could be found to make microform readers available

to all institutions and the general public, and to bring

down the price of microform still further, the me-

dium's already very great potential would increase

enormously, It does seem that at least partial an-

swers to these problems are almost upon us, and

we may, in 1983, be moving into the third major

technological phase of the reproduction and dissem-

ination of historical materials-that of the conflu-

ence of microform publishing, videodisc and

computers. It is now possible to envisage that in a

few years private individuals will be able to pur-

chase very large collections of books, historical

documents, pictures of various kinds, and so on, to

keep in their homes and to view on their television

screens. They will be able to access the material

almost instantaneously by means of microcompu-

ters. Such a situation would very much alter the

nature of historical research. For example, the his-

torian would be able to access a far greater amount

of material, much more quickly. But the resultant

images would be electronic facsimiles. This is not

something new. Already many record offices are

trying to protect original documents by persuading

researchers to look at microfilm copies. But in the

future, instead of travelling to central London to

gaze into a reader at a microfilm of the 1851 census,

it will be possible either to buy part of it for oneself

or see it in a local library. No doubt this will lead

to very considerable political and legal (copyright)

problems as the scramble for rich deposits of ma-

terial intensifies. It will also lead to other difficul-

ties, as inexperienced or unprepared users stare at

screensful of medieval Latin. Yet, having been part

of the earlier technological revolution which, through

microfilm, made new kinds of local history possi-

ble, and having watched with amazement as the

past swam up onto my bedroom wall when I first

focused my 35mm slide projector and brought a

sixteenth-century will into focus, I feel that the ben-

efits will outweigh the difficulties. I look forward

to having the Douce apocalypse in my drawing room

and to witnessing the as-yet-unviewed social dramas

of the seventeenth-century law courts via my new

time machine.



CH    Chadwyck-Healey Ltd.

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H       Harvester Press Microform Publications


          17 Ship Street

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          BNI IAD, England

HDI   The U.S. Historical Documents Institute

          4600 Lee Highway

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IDC   Inter Documentation Company AG

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KTO KTO Microform

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          Millwood, NY 10546

M      Mansell Publishing

          3 Bloomsbury Place

          London WCIA 2QA


OMP Oxford Microform Publications Ltd.

          19a Paradise Street

          Oxford OXI ILD







p        Microforms International Marketing


          Pergamon Press, Inc.

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RPI    Research Publications, Inc.

          12 Lunar Drive

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          Woodbridge, CT 06525

UMI  University Microfilms International

          300 N. Zeeb Road

          Ann Arbor, MI 48106

WMP          World Microfilms Publications Ltd.

          62 Queen's Grove

          London NW8 6ER