ProQuest Celebrates the 75th Anniversary of Microfilm

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Eugene Power. Wikimedia photo.

Eugene Power. Wikimedia photo.

ANN ARBOR — The database and information giant ProQuest is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Eugene Power’s landmark project to capture the books indexed in the British Libraries’ Short Title Catalog on microfilm.

The work launched Power’s Ann Arbor company, University Microfilms Inc., which would later become an essential business within the ProQuest enterprise, and marked a pivotal milestone for libraries, ushering in a new era that unlocked content.

Microfilm enabled libraries to preserve and protect their collections and share their content riches in a portable, space-saving format. Despite the digital revolution, microfilm continues to be the gold standard of information preservation because of its precision and independence from technology.

“Gene Power’s imagination and dedication to advancing the work of scholars led directly to the use of microfilm as a standard format in libraries,” said Kurt Sanford, ProQuest CEO. “His mark on ProQuest is very deep. It’s in our products and the way they are developed, it’s in our expertise in handling rare documents and it’s in the way we do our work, operating in close partnership with librarians and researchers.”

In 1938, Power was a printing company sales rep, working with university faculty. He witnessed the struggle of sharing rare, old documents that were essential for research: automated copying meant cutting up books, so researchers often had assistants make hand-written copies. As a result, documents were limited to the libraries that had original copies, with little protection against deterioration. Further, since books needed shelves for storage, if libraries wanted to add large collections, they also had to add physical space — an expensive proposition.

Power’s innovation conquered those barriers. He envisioned taking pictures of documents and creating film positives that could be stored compactly and read on a screen when needed. He built the second microfilm camera in history to accomplish the task. The books in the Short Title Catalog encompass the British Libraries’ vast collection of documents printed from 1473 to 1700 and were selected for filming to satisfy scholars’ voracious appetites for these works. Preservation of the works through microfilming became far more important as libraries were threatened with destruction during World War II. Microfilm copies ensured the preservation of foundational scholarship. That microfilmed collection became UMI’s flagship product and continues now in both microfilm and digital form under the name Early English Books Online and inspires the new digital program Early European Books.

ProQuest is celebrating Power’s achievements with the development and global distribution of a comic book — in classic super-hero style — that chronicles the nascent days of UMI. The book includes a “Flat Eugene” that ProQuest is encouraging readers to cut out, take to their library, snap photos and then post the pictures to ProQuest’s facebook page or tweet them to #FlatEugene. @ProQuest will retweet photos.

Eugene Power is one of several innovators and entrepreneurs whose legacies continue in the ProQuest enterprise. ProQuest encompasses companies begun by Bob Snyder (chairman of ProQuest’s parent Cambridge Information Group and founder of Cambridge Scientific Abstracts), Richard Bowker (founder of Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Books in Print), Carolyn Ulrich (publisher of Ulrich’s International Periodicals Directory), Roger Summit (developer of the Dialog information service), Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey (publisher of vast literature and historical data), Peter McCracken (co-founder of Serials Solutions) and Kevin Sayar (ProQuest senior vice-president and co-founder of ebrary).

To learn more about ProQuest, visit www.proquest.com.

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