Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Microfilm goes hi(?)-tech

Yesterday while I was in a cavernous room using a microfilm reader, I became aware that someone was watching me. My eyes adjusting from my bright screen to the darkness, I spied an elderly woman smiling broadly at me. "Sorry to scare you, honey," she said. "I'm just amazed at how you handle that thing! You remind me of my grandmother at the loom, the way you're able to turn knobs, pull levers in and out and such, so fast without taking your eyes away from the screen!" I just shrugged and told her it is probably because I have been using microfilm for years. When I was in college in the 1990s -- i.e., the days before one could find U.S. Census records on! -- I worked in the Microfilm Research Room of the National Archives. There were more than 100 machines in MMR, and my job was to assist people in using them. I believe most were NMI 2020's or a similar make -- they projected images from lenses overhead, down to a stark white tabletop, much easier on the eyes than other readers with backlit screens. Made of simple metal parts, and heavy as hell with sides of unscratchable faux wood veneer, they could withstand the abuse of thousands of frustrated, ham-handed genealogists. After my first week on the job, I could load film using my teeth or toes if I had to. And, like learning to ride a bike, once you learn to use one microfilm reader, you basically know how to troubleshoot them all. The first crucial question typically is "is this one an over-under loader?"

Many county historical societies cannot afford to digitize all their microfilm collections, so knowing how to use them is a helpful skill. Nonetheless, I was pleased to find that the technology has upgraded. Yesterday, I learned how to use the ScanPro 2000 (see photos below), a reader that creates digital images from microfilm.  Although loading the film still requires a certain touch, image adjustment and output options are far better than they were years ago. Refocusing and rotating images can be done with the click of a mouse (no need to pull lenses in and out!). And when you drag the edges of a cropping box around your article of choice to print it, the ScanPro automatically fits your image to 8x11" paper or uses several pages if necessary.

One of the added benefits of a sabbatical project like mine, in which I will use dozens of libraries, is the exposure to many different types of technologies, as well as new ways of serving researchers. I'm looking forward to encountering more of this while I'm on the road!

The ScanPro 2000 at LancasterHistory

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