Once upon a time, more than 30 years ago, I worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). No, I was not a policeman; I was a civilian employee, a Micrographic Equipment Operator.
I’m not surprised you have never heard of such a thing. It is a trade that has been rendered obsolete by changes in technology. In fact, I suspect it may have already been obsolete when I was doing it, though we saw it at the time as cutting edge technology.
Until this past week I hadn’t thought about that job in years. It was essentially a placeholder for me, something to do while I decided what I wanted to do with my life. (I still haven’t quite figured that one out completely, but I’m having fun.) What brought the job to mind was reading my grandfather’s war records online, and thinking of the effort involved in scanning the files of a million Canadian soldiers. As I looked at the pages, some yellowed with age but the blue ink signatures still vibrantly coloured, I realized that the RCMP had acted too hastily, and that my two years work had produced an inferior end result.
So what does a Micrographic Equipment Operator do? Well, there are still some around (though I’m not quite sure why) and I found a job description here and here that when combined is pretty close to what I did. My job was to take RCMP records, primarily more than 100 years of personnel files, and transfer them to microfilm. The idea was that all that paper was taking up way too much space. So I would take the pages, one by one, place them on the target area and taking their picture using a camera mounted above the surface operated by a foot pedal. When I came to the end of the roll (which my sometimes faulty memory says was 1800 frames) I then processed the film and reviewed it to make sure I hadn’t missed any pages and that everything was in focus. The files were then sent for destruction.
The RCMP is a storied police force, and our supervisor understood that from time to time we would do more than just place a document down and click. On occasion we just had to read the accounts of those 19th century officers who were law and order in the Canadian west.
We took the files as they came to us in the pile. Usually it would take about half an hour to film each file, as I remember it anyway. Of course there were exceptions. One of my co-workers was lucky enough to get the service file for Col. Sam Steele (I had hoped for that one!). She took a couple of days, maybe longer, to film it; I was so envious.
The reason I say the work was done too soon is that those microfilms were black and white. Not a problem for most documents in the files, but there were some in which it would be nice to have preserved the colour.
I wonder if there is a way to digitize those microfilms. I’m sure there must be. I suppose you could even figure out a way to add colour – they do it with old films – but there is no way to tell if the added colour would be true to the original. If only they had waited a few more years for the technology to change before instituting the project.
The technology has changed so rapidly in the past 35 years. Microfilm is for all intents and purposes obsolete. So what becomes of those historical records that I committed to microfilm? The paper has been destroyed. How much longer will the old microfilm readers continue to function? I doubt anyone is making new ones. Is there someone transferring those films to a newer information medium? What about today’s latest information storage methods? How much we will lose of our heritage and knowledge when current technology is consigned to the scrap heap?