Thursday, April 29, 2010

Using Microfilm Effectively

Patron's Perspective

Rhonda Kohl recently read one of David Swain’s reports. All the discussion of microfilm inspired her to write a quick tip sheet on reading and using microfilm. The DLAR has over 10,000 reels of microfilm, so Rhonda’s advice might be very useful for current David Library patrons and future visitors.

Patrick Spero


A microfilm image is a black-and-white reproduction of a two-dimensional object: a page that contains handwriting in ink or pencil. All sense of depth in the handwriting disappears when it is photographed and placed on film. In addition, not all microfilm is created equal, as most of us know; even the best-shot film is limited by the quality of the original. After transcribing hundreds of 18th and 19th century documents, here are a few tricks I have learned.

Most of us view a microfilm image as a positive, but when the original is too light to read, the positive has many disadvantages. The easiest way to manipulate a light image, is to switch from a positive image (black image on white background), to a negative image, where a white image overlays a black background. This type of manipulation can be done on the old microfilm machines and on the new digital scanner/readers with a push of a button. If switching to a negative did not work, print out both a negative and positive of the image.

With a pencil, trace the lettering on the photocopies of both pages and compare. It is less difficult, and easier on the eyes, to read the handwriting if the letters stand out with modern writing equipment. Always use a pencil, so you can change your mistakes. This is also a very good way of learning the writing style of your subject. Once you can recognize individual letters and have studied their shape, you can use your cipher to ascertain letters and words in other parts of the document that are too faded, jumbled, or damaged to read. Don’t be discouraged—if everything is still unreadable, try looking at the photocopied image from different angles, heights, and under other lighting. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. I have often asked the advice of librarians and other researchers who have experience with primary documents.

If your microfilm reader is a digital scanner, you can also save the microfilm image to a cd or a flash drive in a number of different formats, such as PDF, gif, tif, or jpg. Take the image home with you and view it with a photo-imaging program on your computer. These programs allow manipulation in contrast, brightness, saturation, sharpness, and enhancement. You can also zoom in with more clarity on a computer-generated image than you can with a microfilm reader. Learning the writing habits of the author and manipulating the images may take some time, but the results are very rewarding. Good luck!

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

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