Misadventures with the Microfilm Reader

by Mary Penner 

Turn this knob; slide this under there; snap this shut. Simple. Any first grader can load film onto a microfilm reader, right? I’m ready to launch; I’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. 

The researchers at the other microfilm readers glance in my direction. Some shake their heads with disdain, thinking “What a maroon.” Others have sympathetic half-smiles, thinking “I was an idiot once, too.”

“I guess I had the film on upside down or maybe backwards,” 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 isn’t rocket science. But, for some reason, I still frequently misread them.

Loading film onto the beasts isn’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 wasn’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.  I asked the librarian if they supplied ear plugs. She just patted the machine affectionately saying, “It is our oldest machine.”

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 you’ll see Popeye-like muscles bulging out of the researchers’ right arms.

Muscle toning in the right arm is probably the only health benefit you’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? That’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 that’s a real strain on the old rods and cones.

To me, the most disturbing side effect of microfilm reading is a bout of “scanitis nauseatosis.” 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, I’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 “Lineage Lessons,” 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).

13 thoughts on “Misadventures with the Microfilm Reader

  1. Loading microfilms is easy. Look to see if the film smiles or frowns when loaded. If the film goes on with the film start facing down ( _ then it smiles. If it goes on with the film start facing up (- then it frowns. Or think of it as (__) smile or (–) frown. Works every time. People think it is a strange concept when I first tell them that but “get it” when they look at the film loaded. The best part is you usually can tell by spying on the user next to you before loading the first reel.

  2. Great article! It always amazes me that microfilm readers can be so different. I’m the Genealogy Specialist at a Florida library and have helped many patrons with our readers. The ones I almost hate to help are the poor souls with their heads painfully bent sideways to view the film. I just go over quietly and rotate the image for them. We just got some new readers that require closing a flap over the screen while printing…since it’s actually scanning. Patrons are really stymied at that one until I explain.

  3. As you know, a microfilm case is always inserted with the “open” film side facing the machine slot. Before inserting into the machine, turn your hand toward you and then away from you. Note that one side is “solid” and the other side has a “slot.” Make sure the solid side is at the top when you insert it into the machine. Also check the “leader” (the blank film that precedes the images). If it has bad creases or tears, it may jam in the machine.

    If the film does not load properly, use the large knob to make sure the film is rewound all the way before removing the case from the machine.

    I used to work in a recorder’s office and, believe me, your story is not unusual. Just don’t get flustered–just ask an employee to help you. It’s much easier than damaging the film or jamming the machine.

  4. If you serve on the Budget Committee of a genealogical society, you will appreciate the hand-cranked microfilm reader because it is cheaper than the motor-driven and more durable. It makes a society’s money go farther then donating a reder to a public library. Impatient young people, reading newspaper for school assignments, can tear up a motor-driven reader quickly.

  5. I know I didn’t write this article but it sure sounded to me like I did. 😀 I don’t know that it’s good to know that someone else has problems with the microfilm machines but at least I don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. We press on and just know that we’re gonna have at least one moron moment during the session.

  6. The worst machine I’ve used (so far) would only go forward at ligntning speed. I had to read the newspaper from the last page to the first.

  7. Unfortunately, not all libraries have microfilm readers. My local library said it is “old technology” and took the readers out. Now I have to go clear across the county (which is quite large and lots of traffic) to use one.

  8. Wow, Ms. Penner does it again!!! Amazingly, she brings up an important subject with finesse and a whole lot of humor! I worked for many years “on the other side of the microfilm”… putting the film, in whatever shape it’s in after use, often, back onto the reel, into the proper box and back in the proper drawer. Working in a community college library, with emphasis on Community, I “taught” patrons to use those blessed machines. The signs and symbols have improved over the years, barely! Each and every reader/printer has it’s own quirks and requirements, whether it be a swift kick or holding your mouth a certain way. Never having the funds to buy more than one new machine at a time, we ended up with 12 different kinds, and no two alike. I even had names for them all. Being on a first name basis with these made the task a bit easier and more fun. Shortly after retiring (disability!) I discovered genealogy. I can now be found on the rolling chair that’s NOT missing a wheel! Thanks, Ms. Penner and thanks Weekly Journal… oh, and don’t forget to thank those librarians and technicians!

  9. It is simple when you know how; and practise makes perfect. I will agree that loading a microfilm is not an ergonomically friendly exercise. The longer time spent at the machine is equivalent to more biological stress. If you are a left handed like me, the stress becomes more pronounced.

    The Librarians in my home town are not exactly eager to teach one how to load the microfilms either. It becomes more embarassingingly acute when their are a variety of machines from the National Library of Jamaica in the capital, Kingston; to the Main Library of the University of the West Indies in the parish St.Andrew.

    This is a very freshing, humorous, but thought provoking article by Mary Penner. However, it is apparent that the microfilms and their respective machines have to be brought forward into the 21st century, if they are necessary evils.

    Elaine Foster

  10. So, I’ll be happy to press that button any day. Is it my imagination, or are my Librarians in my home town hiding information in a technologically advanced age? Hmmmm!

    Elaine Foster

  11. For those with weary eyes–try putting a yellow sheet of paper on the microfiche/microfilm where the image is…it really makes the document easier to read. I read about this little trick a few years ago and it has helped me tremendously.

  12. I may be in the minority, but I’ll stick with the hand-crank microfilm readers. It may take more time, and effort, to get where you want to go and then back to the beginning. But for ease of control when you’re in the vicinity of the page(s) you want, the hand-crank beats the automated any day. And there’s more consistency in how to load the hand-crank machines than there is with the automated machines.

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