Shirley Hornbeck's This and That Genealogy Tips on Microfilm


1. MICROFILMS PRODUCED DURING THE EARLIEST DAYS OF MICRO FILMING TECHNOLOGY. In the late 1930s through the 1950s, with a new technology and an entire world of records to choose from, agencies such as the Family History Library and various national archives began their filming. Naturally, the most-used and most valuable records were filmed first, when the quality was at its worst. However, both the LDS Church and the U.S. National Archives have done some selective re filming. Perhaps some other agencies have also. Just don't expect any agency to undertake re-filming on a massive Basis.

2. FADED INK. Some census takers economized by using ink of poor quality or by watering it down.

3. POOR TYPEWRITERS AND RIBBONS. Some records were typed on poorly-maintained typewriters using ribbons whose useful days were long gone.

4. BRITTLE PAPER. A good quality of paper is normally used in the printed books designed for recording of official records. However, many of the most valuable genealogical records were not kept in such volumes. Local governments on the U.S. frontier were sometimes fortunate to have any kind of consistent paper supply. Some records were kept on paper that has a high acid content. As the years passed, this paper becomes brittle and unless treated, will eventually fall to pieces.

5. POOR ARCHIVAL CONDITIONS. Archives, particularly state and local ones, are chronically under funded. That means their holdings are often poorly housed in regard to dust, light, moisture, mold, and overly compacted conditions Due to under staffing, problems that arise must often be ignored. Some of the "archival" conditions that exist in the United States are enough to make you cry. The situation in less prosperous countries is often worse.

6. POOR CONDITION UPON RECEIPT. The records may have been received in water-stained, faded, fragmentary or worn condition when they arrived at the archives.

7. POOR MICRO FILMING CONDITIONS. Some of the Family History Library's records were microfilmed under circumstances that should be told in a good movie or book. The same may be true for some Microfilmers working for other organizations. Imagine carting a film camera, cans of microfilm and other materials and a portable power generator by donkey to a village in the mountains of Italy. Then it's up several flights of stairs to an unlit, unventilated (and it's the middle of the summer) attic in an old building. Now, set up your power generator and have at it!

8. RESTRICTIVE ARCHIVAL REGULATIONS. Some tightly bound volumes were filmed at archives that would not allow the volumes to be disbound for filming, due to the cost, the extensive labor involved, or the fragile condition of the volumes. The result, of course, is microfilmed pages that are hard to read at the center of the volume.

9. RECORDS AVAILABLE ONLY BY PURCHASING EXISTING MICROFILMS. The Family History Library and other organizations often purchase microfilms rather than producing them themselves. This happens for a variety of reasons: The archives may do its own micro filming or have it done by a commercial microfilmer. In these situations the archives may be unwilling or contractually unable to allow an additional filming to be done as long as it is possible to read the existing films.

10. HASTY FILMING. Some microfilmers are paid by the page or frame. This is done to ensure value for the money, but can tempt some microfilmers beyond what they can bear. Excessive haste is more likely to be a problem when the original records are loose papers housed in packets tied up with string. The filmer must undo the string, take out the records, arrange them on the micro filming surface in the order in which they were housed in the packet, then do the filming, then stack the records in the same order, reinsert them in the packet and tie it back up.

11. POOR QUALITY CONTROL WHEN DEVELOPING THE MICROFILM OR REPRODUCING COPIES FROM THE MASTER NEGATIVE. Organizations such as the National Archives and the Family History Library have quality control standards, but people do sometimes make mistakes.


1. Take your time and re-read. When you can't make out an entry, it sometimes helps to leave it for awhile and come back to it.

2. Use a magnifying glass.

3. If the image is out of focus, try a machine with a less powerful lens. The image will be smaller but it may also be clearer.

4. Some film readers have a stronger and a weaker light setting; try both.

5. Try placing a sheet of colored paper on the projection surface.

6. Try using a reader that is located in the darkest part of the room.

7. Check the glass plates on the film reader. They may be scratched or dirty.

8. Get permission to turn out the lights near you if this is possible.

9. Check with a staff member to see if a better quality copy can be obtained.

10. If none of these work, you may need to hire a researcher who has access to the original volumes (unfortunately not possible with U.S. census films and some other records).

Here's a simple aid to make microfilm reading easier: On a sheet of light blue stationary (white paper "disappears" when you put it on the white surface of the reader), draw a single line the long way of the paper with a yellow or pink Hi-Liter, about two inches in from the edge.

Put this on the microfilm reader and position the paper and film image so that the desired line of the image is highlighted. It looks just like the highlighting was on the film! A little weight, like an eraser, is enough to hold the paper from slipping around or sliding off onto the floor.

Makes it much easier to focus back on the correct line after you turn away to write on the sheet you are copying data to.

If you are trying to read light or blurred writing - you might also try putting a yellow, green or blue (or use all three of different combinations) colored plastic pages you used to use to put your reports in in high school, against the screen that you are reading from. You can get these in different colors with a side slide to hold the papers and they cost about $1.00. It will also help with bringing out faded writing by putting the sheets down on the photocopy machine then put your pages down that you cannot read. If you enlarge the copy it makes a great difference too. Experiment by using different colors and layers.

National Archives: click on the genealogy page and go down to the Microfilm Rental Program. When you print out their order blank and order a kit (cost is $28) this is what you will get:
1. Catalog of 1790-1890 Federal Censuses
2. Catalog of 1900 Federal Censuses
3. Catalog of 1910 Federal Censuses
4. Catalog of 1920 Federal Censuses
5. Catalog of Rev. War Pension, Bounty Land and war Service Records
6. Coupon for 2 free rentals
7. 10% off some of their offerings

National Archives Microfilm Rental Program, 9050 Junction Drive, P. O. Box 30, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701-0030 (301) 604-3699. (Rents census 1790-1920; Soundexes 1880-1920; You can also purchase microfilm copies of census records).

National Archives Trust Fund (NECD), P. O. Box 100793 Atlanta, GA 30384, (800) 234-8861, Check made payable to National Archives Trust Fund accept V/MC @ $34.00 per roll (call to double check) AGLL: they also have an 800 # 1-800-760-AGLL
Address: American Genealogical Lending Library
P. O. Box 244
Bountiful, Utah 84010
(801) 298-5358 the New England Historic Genealogical Society (888) AT-NEHGS Census Microfilm: A place which sells census microfilm (you can donate it to your local library) for $7.95 per roll which I am told is a fraction of cost of National Archives.

Heritage Quest, (A division of the AGLL), Membership Dept. P. O. Box 329, Bountiful, UT 83011-0329, (800) 760-2455 Requires an annual membership fee

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