Using a Microfilm Machine

using a microfilm reader for genealogy
A typical microfilm reader in a library

Even in today’s modern world of Internet and digital resources, there is a place for the lowly microfilm machine. If you are going to be doing any in-person genealogy research at smaller or older libraries, you’ll need to know your way around using one.

Over the years, many archives of newspapers and periodicals have been kept on microfilm because it takes up far less space and that was really the only format available at the time. Even old books may be kept this way. More and more libraries are moving towards digital options, old material is still on microfilm more often than not.

The machines may seem ancient and clunky but they are easy enough to use once you’ve tried them a few times. These instructions should get you going if it’s your first time doing microfilm or microfiche research. Always ask the librarian or archive custodian for help if you get stuck.

Because most people aren’t familiar with microfilm readers, public machines are usually very well marked with arrows and labels to help you out. Take the time to read any posted instructions. Here is a general outline of how to use a library microfilm machine:

1. If it’s not already on, turn on the power

2. Open the machine to load the microfilm. A tray or panel may need to be opened to reveal where the film goes.

3. Slide the roll onto the spoke and insert the loose end into the reader. This part can be tricky. It may automatically roll the end inside or you may have to turn a reel to take up the film.

4. At this point, you should be able to see each frame of film on the screen. Just use the knobs to scroll through the film until you find the point you want. Your index may have a frame or document number, or you might just have to browse around until you find what you need.

5. Many machines have a copy feature, so you can use that to make a direct printed copy of the film frame you need. You might need to use coins at the machine directly, or make your copies and pay at the counter later on.

6. When you’re done, roll the film back to the beginning and take it off the spool to be returned to it’s rightful place.

That’s all there is to it. So next time you have the chance to do some archive research that involves microfilm, don’t shy away from it.