Xander de Vries

Inside the white cardboard box is the microfilm, wrapped like a roll of toilet paper for pygmy robots, which Alex Lance ’20 takes out and slides onto the left spoke of the Microfilm ScanPro 2000. She pulls the roll to the right; threads it under, then over, two protruding pegs; lifts up the illuminated glass; stretches the roll beneath it; threads it over, then under, two more pegs; and folds the end of the roll over the right spoke to complete the symmetry and lodge the wheel in place.

Alex, a silver nose-ringed library service assistant at the Microform Reading Room in the basement of Sterling Memorial Library, looks up from the machine.

“Until you turn on the screen, you can’t tell if you threaded it right-side up or upside-down,” she says, clicking the button that spins the microfilm roll. Translucent pages zoom under the glass like little train cars, and the computer screen blurs black and white and black and white.

After a couple of seconds, the train comes to a stop and big, bold, right-side up words fill the screen: WATERING HOLE OF HUNKY DUDES: VANCOUVER’S NO. 1 LEATHER BAR. Alex presses the button that zooms out, laughing.

“We have this gigantic queer history archive down here, which is super cool because it’s my history.” She flips the off switch, silencing the thrum of the $9,875 ScanPro 2000 (picture the Starship Enterprise for ants), now echoed by the buzzing air-conditioning unit. “But I don’t know why we’re not devoting more energy to modernizing it.”

Her shift over, Alex walks down the Microform Reading Room’s sterile runway and swings out the door, leaving me alone with the 370 filing cabinet columns that store most of Yale’s miniaturized manuscript collection: 15 million and counting.

The reading room breaks many of its online floorplan’s promises. Cabinets that purport to stand center stage line the walls, and drawer rows labeled as microfilm occasionally house nothing but a scribbled Post-it note. (One reads, “all moved — see Kevin.”) Most egregious is the floor plan’s advertised palette, with vibrant blues, reds and pastels. The actual reading room is a sad rainbow of beiges, grays and off-whites — how a sunset might look to a colorblind man squinting. Even the word “room” is inaccurate; it’s really two wide hallways, which meet in a right angle at the service table. The ScanPro 2000 and its three analog peers sit on desks at the entry hallway’s right side, but cabinet columns, many towering over seven feet, block practically all the other wall space.

The Microform Reading Room glows with artificial, overhead light — the darkest parts of the space are its windows. I ask Brian Kiss, a 38-year-old front-line service assistant with twinkly eyes and dyed hair that matches the steel cabinets, why they are kept shuttered.

“You know, I’ve always wondered that myself,” he says. “I mean, we are underground.” He jumps over a desk to pull back a shade. We peer past the glass — more darkness. But before we can investigate further, the phone rings and he skips off to grab it.

This basement space, enshrined to old-fashioned technology and full of unanswered questions, is Sterling Library’s tailbone, a vestigial relic of academia past. As if digitization has taken each five-by-sixteen drawer by surprise.

But although microform, a catch-all term for any medium that physically scales down documents, is no longer in a typical undergraduates’ vernacular, it was flying off everyone’s tongues in 1940. That’s when The New York Times published an article headlined, “Yale Now Filming Old Books, Papers.” As it turns out, Yale was a global pioneer in the academic use of microfilm and microfiche, both types of microform that rely on film negatives. The technique proved particularly valuable for archiving periodicals, liable to crinkle and yellow, and rare books, too valuable to be checked out willy-nilly.

Yale was so confident in the technology that it deputized students traveling abroad with microfilm-capable cameras, instructing them to archive the “great libraries and museums of Europe” for the University’s collection. At the time, microfilm research on campus was popular enough that “the library [had] eight projectors, which [were] in almost constant use,” the Times wrote. Now, the article has itself been preserved in microfilm, hidden within the room it once eulogized. Now, the room feels like a time capsule, its tremendous size only amplifying its anachronisms.

The room’s current organizing system, which varies from chronological to thematic to Post-it–based without explanation, is dizzying. This vertigo isn’t figurative: the oldest microfilm-processing machine, a bulky Minolta MS-7000, scans film so fast that students have passed out and thrown up just from looking at its flashing screen.

But the room’s trajectory toward antiquation is not inertial, as Kiss, who finishes explaining a machine’s malfunction and hangs up the phone, jumps in to explain.

For 30 years, he says, a man named Kevin Pacelli was in charge of the Microform Reading Room. But he abruptly retired last year, taking with him decades of institutional memory. Whatever momentum his tenure had generated came to a standstill. The information about the room that hasn’t evaporated has dispersed. When was the collection founded? Talk to the chief research archivist. Why are the windows shuttered? Ask the director of building operations and security. Is this still the second largest collection of microform in the country? Post-Pacelli, no one’s sure.

The humbling irony is this: Kept in a dry, chilly place like the Microform Reading Room, microfilm and microfiche will outlast everyone on this planet by 350 years. When Adobe software becomes incompatible with technology of the future and PDFs can no longer be read, microfilm and microfiche will be interpretable, even without a ScanPro 2000 — all they need is light and a magnifying glass to last.

The room’s potential for obsolescence, though, is intrinsic not to its technology but its people, who must care for it if it will care for the future. Laura Sider, an assistant department head for front-line services, is the Microform Reading Room’s current overseer. She takes a lot of pride in the collection, but because she’s in charge of much more than just microfilm, she finds herself dedicating less time to the room than she would like.

“It can sometimes feel like it’s hanging on by a thread,” she said, sounding disheartened but not defeated. The student staff, who used to buzz about the room, now spend most of each shift doing homework at the front desk. Something like an inverse Tragedy of the Commons has occurred here, where an unimaginable amount of information languishes.

Still, for all the Microform Reading Room has lost, it has not stopped being found. Alex Lance, who began her student job there last year on a whim, sees the collection as a music lover might a record store.

“You feel so much closer to the material — to the history — down here than you do on your own computer,” she says. As she threads microfilm around pegs and glass, listening to the machine’s whirring warm-up, she nods, relishing its vintage feel. Microform may be old-fashioned, but it makes for more memories.

Pacelli, who has moved around since retirement, bares no overt grudge to the place, nor to his replacements. He just hopes more people like Lance discover it.

“I hope in the future, the collections remain campus so that future Yale student[s] will have access to [the] great research material we possess,” he wrote in an email.

Projecting the future of this room’s caretakers is a blurry affair — what is right-side up may soon be upside-down. The projection of last weekend at the Microform Reading Room is small but clear. Mitchell researched pamphlets from the Vietnamese interwar period for his history dissertation. Tony worked on an encyclopedia of South American motor racing. Jack learned about his activist grandfather, who worked as a welder at Yale and protested with his union in the 1980s. And Brian Kiss tried to fix a ScanPro 2000.

“Come on baby, what’s going on here,” he cooed. “Ooh, that’s no good. Come on, turn on your green light.” And it does.

Jordan Cutler-Tietjen | jordan.cutler-tietjen@yale.edu