by Mary PennerÂ
Turn this knob; slide this under there; snap this shut. Simple. Any first grader can load film onto a microfilm reader, right? Iâ€™m ready to launch; Iâ€™ll just press this button.
Instead of slithering with the speed of a cobra onto the take-up reel, the film explodes all over the floor like a trick snake in a fake peanut can.Â
The researchers at the other microfilm readers glance in my direction. Some shake their heads with disdain, thinking â€œWhat a maroon.â€ Others have sympathetic half-smiles, thinking â€œI was an idiot once, too.â€
â€œI guess I had the film on upside down or maybe backwards,â€ I stutter, feeling like a total moron.
The delicate art of loading film has been my enduring bugaboo. Interpreting those little diagrams on the machines isnâ€™t rocket science. But, for some reason, I still frequently misread them.
Loading film onto the beasts isnâ€™t the only challenge. Every microfilm reader has its own quirks. Today I had a machine that required a firm whack on the side panel every few minutes to keep its motor humming. I wasnâ€™t happy about the whacking, but it was the only machine available and the librarian gave me explicit whacking instructions.
Not only did this machine require regular whacking, when I accelerated the film into fast-forward it mimicked the sound of a jet engine.Â I asked the librarian if they supplied ear plugs. She just patted the machine affectionately saying, â€œIt is our oldest machine.â€
I suppose quirky electronic microfilm readers are still preferable to the old hand-crank readers. Why is it that the data I need is always at the very end of a two-mile-long film that I have to hand crank? Walk around any research library with hand crank readers and youâ€™ll see Popeye-like muscles bulging out of the researchersâ€™ right arms.
Muscle toning in the right arm is probably the only health benefit youâ€™ll get from a microfilm reader. I have, in fact, discovered many negative health effects from using microfilm readers.
Have you ever sliced your fingers on the edge of the film? Thatâ€™s a paper cut on steroids. And those hand crank readers have that big knob hanging off the front for moving the image up and down. How many times have I banged my head on that? And what about our nearly ruined eyesight? No matter how much we adjust the focus, some words just refuse to sharpen into legible script. And those films with the black background and the white letters–now thatâ€™s a real strain on the old rods and cones.
To me, the most disturbing side effect of microfilm reading is a bout of â€œscanitis nauseatosis.â€ Yes, baffling all known tenets of medicine, genealogists can get a roaring case of motion sickness while barely moving a muscle. Sit at a microfilm reader, manual or electric, and slowly scan page after page of film. Before long the eyes and brain have decided this repetitious exercise must translate into a case of microfilm-reading motion sickness.
So, we family history researchers have a love-hate relationship with microfilm readers. At least I do anyway; although, most of my problems come from operator error. Regardless of the hazards, Iâ€™ll keep using microfilm and microfilm readers. After all, those little frames of analog text have offered me countless answers to my genealogical questions.
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Genealogist Mary Penner writes â€œLineage Lessons,â€ a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune (http://www.abqtrib.com/staff/mary-penner/). She can be reached through her website (www.marypenner.com).