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The Rockefeller Foundation and Microphotography

When the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) reorganized in 1928, it not only changed its administrative infrastructure, but also adopted a fresh guiding principle: “the advancement of knowledge.” This broad maxim undergirded the creation of academically-oriented divisions and gave RF officers relatively free rein to identify and cultivate cutting-edge research. The plan’s aim, as RF President Raymond Fosdick later explained, was “progress through understanding,” particularly regarding humanity’s most perplexing, intractable social problems.[1]

Saving the Past for the Future

Although the Foundation’s most obvious mandate was to fund research and technological innovation with an eye toward the future, in 1936 it seized upon a crucial opportunity to preserve the past. Over the following decade, across the duration of the Second World War, the Foundation devoted more than $750,000 to the new technology of microphotography. RF grants enabled the Library of Congress, the American Library Association (ALA), and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to microfilm books, periodicals, rare documents, and academic journals. The Foundation initially embraced microfilm for its space-saving potential.  It marveled that “the whole of the New York Public Library’s three million books could fit into the space now occupied by its card catalog.”[2] But when rising fascism in Europe threatened to destroy an entire cultural heritage, the Foundation quickly realized that microfilm might play a far more significant role: protecting the raw materials essential to open inquiry and intellectual freedom.

After twenty-five years of investment in European cultural institutions, universities, and scientific laboratories, to characterize the Foundation as alarmed by the Nazis' dismantling of their work would be an understatement. “Reason is everywhere in retreat,” Fosdick lamented. “Human lives are not the only casualties in war.” He called the Foundation to action in strong words: “Each generation is the temporary trustee of the riches handed down from the past. If through our fault they are not also part of the future, posterity will brush aside any explanation which this generation can make.”[3]

In 1940, at the height of the German Blitz, an RF grant to the ACLS paid for the microfilming of the indexes of London’s Public Record Office. These papers, described as “the key to eight hundred years of British history,” included documents pertaining to Chaucer, Bacon, Cromwell, Milton, and Isaac Newton, among thousands of others. As soon as the microfilms were complete, they were sent to the Library of Congress to provide “valuable insurance in case one of those indiscriminate Nazi bombs should smite the original file in London.”[4]

Photograph of Microfilm Machine, n.d.

Ensuring Civil Society Through Knowledge Capacity-Building

As the war increasingly shut down intellectual exchange, the RF underwrote the ALA’s 1944 effort to stockpile and microfilm the scholarly journals of the United States for the eventual replenishment of Asian and European libraries. A bulletin to the Foundation’s trustees reminded them that book burning in Germany’s public squares had been a symbolic act. The “contrast between fascism and democracy,” it argued, would be demonstrated by the Foundation’s “concern over the war-wrecked libraries, some of them smoking ruins, others not burned but plundered, many starved by the complete cessation of contacts with the outside world.”[5] Microfilm would both preserve the records of history and safeguard the developments of the free world.

Anticipating the Digital Age

It is not surprising that the Foundation was intrigued by microphotography. The RF had always valued and promoted technologies that enabled greater efficiency, more effective management, and wider public access to resources. In addition to emergency projects for the war, microfilming did indeed deliver on its potential, solving problems of storage, material conservation, and distribution.

Moreover, as the Foundation recognized, microfilm would spark a whole new industry. The Library of Congress microfilm program grew from 3 staff and 106,000 microfilm exposures in 1939 to 68 staff, and over 2.6 negative microfilm exposures and 1.5 million feet of positive microfilm copies in 1948.[6] Over the course of twelve years, from 1936 to 1948, the RF helped establish a microfilming infrastructure by purchasing state-of-the-art equipment for institutions including the Library of Congress, the University of Chicago, Brown University, the University of Buenos Aires, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Public Library of Manchester, England. Each of these institutions became a center that served a network of local institutions. For the first time, resources such as the complete catalog of the Library of Congress could be distributed easily and affordably to institutions across Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the South Pacific.

While the Rockefeller Foundation did not pioneer microfilm, it “gave the microfilm movement a strategic push at an opportune time.” Many of the Foundation’s predictions did not come true immediately. In the early years, it seemed that just around the corner “books on shelves would become a memory” and “the library of the future would be contained in a tea caddy.”[7] Nevertheless, these visions eventually materialized in the digital world. In fact, the global information deluge launched in part by RF-supported microfilming partly substantiated the Foundation’s enduring hope that “a freedom-thirsty world cannot be kept permanently in chains. Universities in exile, concentration camps, and bonfires for books are temporary phenomena. In the last analysis, not injustice, not Napoleon, not Hitler, but reason and truth are the conquerors of the world.”[8]


[1] Rockefeller Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report, 1936 (New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 1936), 8.

[2] “Tomorrow’s Books,” in Rockefeller Foundation Trustees’ Bulletin, 1937, November 1937, 5, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Trustee Bulletins, Box 1, Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY) (hereafter RAC).

[4] “Multiplying Books Through Photos,” in Rockefeller Foundation Trustees’ Bulletin, 1941, February 1941, 3-4, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Trustee Bulletins, Box 2, RAC.

[5] “Books and the International Scene,” in Rockefeller Foundation Trustees’ Bulletin, 1944, June 1944, 1, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Trustee Bulletins, Box 3, RAC.

[6] “The Library and the Microfilm,” in Rockefeller Foundation Trustees’ Bulletin, 1949, June 1949, 28, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Trustee Bulletins, Box 5, RAC.

[7]A Laboratory for The Study of Human Growth,” in Rockefeller Foundation Trustees’ Bulletin, 1949, June 1949, 31, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Trustee Bulletins, Box 5, RAC.