Thursday, June 16, 2011

Do You Prefer Books or Microfilm?

Yesterday I found myself at the Essex Registry of Deeds in Salem, Massachusetts.  I had to pause and think hard before I made the trip. 

You see, I had a choice.  I could drive all the way to Salem and look at the books or I could hop on a train and visit the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston which has all the early deeds and indexes on microfilm.

The advantage of going to NEHGS is that all the microfilm is available in one room with knowledgeable staff ready to help me.  Another big advantage is that I can save the images to my thumb drive and bring them home to store on my own computer.  In addition, I can get other research done because NEHGS has so much more than just deeds.

The disadvantage is that I don't really like using microfilm.  It's time consuming pulling the rolls one by one, reeling through them, moving to another station to save the images.  And I'm always so worried that if I'm not extra gentle that I might tear one of the films. It's just slow.  And not to mention that sometimes the microfilm images just aren't as clear as what is available from the books.  And the advantage of being able to research so many other things at NEHGS can be a real disadvantage if you need to focus on one thing.  The temptation is too strong!

I opted for a two tier plan of action.  I decided to go to the Registry building and do my deed research.  It is so much faster pulling books off shelves, flipping through them and then re-shelving.  Because of the way the Essex Registry is set up I can rest my books for viewing in the same row where I am searching which makes wheeling around and pulling multiple books very easy.

For the second part of my plan I decided to save NEHGS for later in the week.  That way if I didn't finish my deed research I could always do it there. At the same time, I could move on to probate research.

It's not really about deed books.  I have been using microfilm for many things lately, pulling obituaries from newspapers and checking town records.  But somehow I still prefer the option of using books whenever I can.

What about you? Are you a book or microfilm person and why?

Photo Credit: Photo by Plutor used under the creative commons license.


  1. Oh definitely a book person, microfilm certainly has its advantages as you point out above, but personally scrolling through those films makes me motion sick. I can only take it in very small doses.

  2. Having spent a spot of time lately in SLC in the FHC, in the research film and book mecca, I found I spent more than 95% of my time spinning films, original records, not extractions, etc. That said, had to go to the books a few times to help me locate something on the film. Love my books, but, love original records more.

    Course, if I had your choices, Marian, I would do just as you have decided, BOTH!! :-)

  3. I'm definitely a book person...I like to make my photocopies directly from them; but, sometimes that is not always possible. I have used microfilm via ILL extensively on some projects when dealing with out of state documents from the Library of Virginia. But there is romance in flipping through the old pages of a book that is lost in microfilm. It generates a personal bond to the past.

  4. Most of my own research has been done by using microfilm. However, I would love to be able to visit the actual place of interest and look through the books!

  5. When I can't find what I'm looking for online while in my comfy pjs drinking a soda, I prefer to go to the original record books whenever possible. Besides, there nothing like a genealogy road trip:)

  6. I would imagine looking through the books would be slower than microfilm. You find pulling the films more time consuming than pulling old books? With the books, I would want to be very careful handling them and turn pages slowly. With microfilm, I load them onto the machines and zoom right through. I've only once ever witnessed a film tear, and the machine did it while rewinding. (And it was right at the beginning so they just snipped off the extra blank film at the end.) If you tear a book, you've torn it forever, but a microfilm is a copy and can be replaced with another copy of itself.

    That said, I can't wait to go to Poland and look through the original books of the records I've been poring over on microfilm for so many years.

  7. If I had a choice between looking at an original record on microfilm versus in a book I'd definitely go for the latter. It's the heft of it, the feel of the pages (particularly if it's a very old book!)...literally, touching history.

  8. I guess it depends. I used a city directory on film once and that was a painful experience. It would have taken me 20 seconds to find what I was I was looking for in the bound volume.

    When I get frustrated with microfilm it usually has to do with the quality of the reader, not the microfilm itself. Years ago one facility I went to had a half hour use limit on the readers. They were all in such poor condition it took a half hour just to get the microfilm on the machine and focus, by then time was up.

    I don't think you have to worry too much about tearing the microfilm, Marian. I've spent years helping people use the stuff and never had it tear when the film was put on correctly. The only time it tore was when people put it in the machine incorrectly, then cranked away at the fast-forward button.