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Scanning shear‐force microscopy, which is usually employed to track scanning near‐field optical microscopy probes across samples, was used to observe the sub‐surface smectic layer structure through the thickness of a film of the alkyl cyanobiphenyl liquid crystal 8CB on a highly oriented pyrolytic graphite substrate from force‐distance measurements. With the noncontact imaging shear‐force microscopy supplies, it was possible to follow, in the topography, the movement of a monolayer of the 8CB molecules. This has enabled the diffusion of molecules in a precursor film of 8CB to be observed without significantly disrupting the free liquid surface. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.