Australia's history on microfilm offered free to good home

By Harley Dennett

May 26, 2015

Nearly half a century of Australian history is on offer to someone with the means to digitise some 5.8 million frames of microfilm.

The Australian Joint Copying Project — a collaboration of the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the National Library of Australia and the State Library of New South Wales — created microfilm copies of historical documents from 1948 to 1993 relating to Australia and New Zealand that were located in the National Archives of the UK and other repositories in Britain and Ireland.

A call for proposals has been put out for someone to do something digital with that microfilm. The RFP on AusTender states:

“The project partners now wish to digitise this microfilm (an estimated 5.8 million frames) and related paper-based finding aids and make them publically accessible. The project partners assume respondents will seek the right to distribute some or all of the digitised content commercially and that the respondents will not seek payment from the project partners for the digitisation.”

Microfilm and microfiche is still a favoured long-term storage for archives around the world, albeit not as accessible as the public increasingly demands more online. Until a perfect digitisation format and tools are created that will stand the test of time, microfilm and paper records still have their uses.

As open data projects go, the AJCP digitisation is pretty straight forward with no legacy rights or privacy concerns to manage. And assuming the microfilm doesn’t get lost or stolen, it’ll last for many years if the digitisation takes longer than expected.

However, a “photo nightmare” is playing out in Little Rock, Arkansas where a circuit court is sitting on 100 years of Australian and New Zealand photos from Fairfax Media owned publications after the company tasked with digitising them went into receivership. In 2013, Rogers Photo Archive was contracted to undertake the digitising of photos — some of which date as far back as the 19th century. At the time, John Rogers said a number of their photo collection had already begun to deteriorate:

“We know we’re in race against time, because historic photographs and negatives grow more fragile as years pass. Storms, flood or fire can completely wipe out a collection in an instant, taking with it the history of a community.”

Fairfax’s Garry Linnell in the same press release said: “By digitally archiving the images, we are not only preserving them for future generations, but we’re ensuring the images can be readily accessed by any of our publications, as well as those in the community that are interested.”

It didn’t go down that way though, and it appears many of the photos have now been lost forever. New Zealand Herald columnist Brian Rudman wrote last month:

“Two years on, the digital archiving is yet to be completed, an unknown number of the photographs have turned up on for sale and Rogers Photo Archive, the company involved, is now in receivership facing at least 10 lawsuits totalling more than $94 million.”

Thankfully, the AJCP partners can afford to be patient as they find the right (solvent) home for this collection.

 Read more at the Mandarin: Archives boss: billions going begging if we let data slip away


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