Before the advent of the digital document recording and storage techniques we have today many institutions turned to microform to help condense and preserve their collections. Microform, miniature photographs or micro-reproductions, contained on either film or paper were more cost effective to produce than traditional books and took up far less storage space. Libraries and archival facilities still maintain their microform collections, though methods of digital preservation have surpassed microform in almost all respects. If you have ever done research in a Family History Center before you most likely looked into ordering microfilm from their collection.
The phenomenon of microphotography was developed in 1839. For a while it was counted as little more than an amusing pastime by most, but by 1851 people began proposing its potential use in document preservation. By 1896 the idea had begun to catch on and microform continued to grow in sophistication and popularity from then on.
The most prevalent types of microform are microfilm and microfishe. Microfilm is printed on a reel of photographic film while microfishe is printed on a flat sheet of paper. Godfrey Library founder Fremont Rider tried to popularize another type of microform, the microcard, which was similar to microfishe except for being printed on cardboard rather than photographic paper. A convenient way to enlarge the microcard images for easy reading was never fully developed and Rider's invention did not catch on.
Today microform continues to hold one advantage over digital preservation: you need no special software or up to date hardware to view it. All one needs is a magnifying glass. That is, of course, the bare minimum needed and is not recommended if one actually wishes to be able to read what was preserved. Microfilm and fishe readers work by displaying the image recorded onto a screen for easy viewing. More advanced readers also have printing capabilities. Though they can occasionally be unwieldy and difficult to use, it certainly beats squinting through a magnifying glass!
Microform is particularly useful in the preservation of such documents that are prone to damage or printed on poor quality paper that may deteriorate with time. Newspapers, magazines, and vital records were all perfect candidates for microform preservation. Even though digital preservation has advanced far enough to make microform near obsolete, do not discount investigating various microformed documents in your genealogical research! Many records have yet to be converted to digital content and are only available as either originals or microform copies. Family History Centers, like the one at the Godfrey, not only have microfilm readers, but can also help you order films of the documents you need from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Who knows, you might just find the one elusive record you've been looking for!