Monday, January 6, 2014

Monday Mailbox: Keep the Microfilm

The Ancestry Insider's Monday Mailbox

A FamilySearch patron posted this comment on FamilySearch’s public feedback website:

A big advantage to researching in the FHL is being able to use the microfilm, quickly find the volume and page without guessing the image numbers multiple times, enhance the images on the wonderful scanner/printers for better legibility, and choose the size of paper on which to print. Computers are great for accessing records for those who live away from the FHL, but I really hope the microfilms stay available for those of us who do serious research in original records. Please keep the microfilms available for research! The FHL is a treasure because of them.

Raquel Lindaas

Dear Readers,

I heartedly agree. Withdrawing microfilm from circulation or removing it from the Family History Library would be a major mistake.

Digitization and publication of microfilm is subject to error and usage is subject to extreme limitation.

Digitization is subject to optical error. Images might be blurred, out of focus, too light, too dark, backwards, or upside down. I recently came across an illegibly light image from the 1880 census. When I checked the original film, it was perfectly legible. A wiki article about errors in the “New York, Land Records, 1630-1975” says the collection has images that are backwards and upside down and recommends using microfilm to read them.

Digitization is subject to automation error. Algorithms can miss images or clip them.

Digitization is subject to human error. Operators can make mistakes during the digitization process.

Publication is subject to innocent error. I have come across several online publications where FamilySearch has left out images preceding and following record volumes. To the untrained eye, these appear useless. But what if they dropped the instructions for using a Russell or Cott Index? What if they dropped a volume guide or a sub-index? What if they dropped section dividers? What if they dropped title boards with coverage information? What if they dropped volume covers with citation information? There are lots of seemly useless images that are helpful or critical to utilize records.

imageThe thumbnails to the left demonstrate the utility of even the most innocuous images. When browsing thumbnails the break between these two volumes is clear. When FamilySearch published this film they eliminated these images, running the two volumes together. Less obvious, but also apparent in these thumbnails, is a section divider. When the North Carolina archives microfilmed this volume they dropped the sub-indexes following the section dividers. This is rather serious as common names in this index are not in alphabetical order.
Publication is subject to human error. Given that FamilySearch has the technology to purposefully leave out images, it might do so inadvertently. I came across a missing Texas vital record. The certificates were in numerical order and one number was missing. had published an index to the same records and the index showed that the missing certificate existed. Had FamilySearch inadvertently dropped or misfiled the image when they published the collection? Without access to the microfilm, I could not have answered that question.

Publication is subject to organizational errors. A wiki article about errors in the “New York, Land Records, 1630-1975” collection states that records about Broome county are misfiled under Tioga county, and records from Wayne county under Chautauqua. Records from Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga, and Tompkins are incorrectly filed under Chemung County. The list of problems continues for several pages.

Publication is subject to tonal error. When FamilySearch publishes images, it dramatically reduces tone resolution. Technically speaking, they reduce the scan depth from 8 bits to 4 bits. That reduces the number of shades of gray from 256 to 16. Remember the 1880 census image that was too light? I could have used Photoshop to restore legibility of the image had FamilySearch not reduced tone so aggressively.

Publication is subject to intended compression error. Compression speeds up how quickly an image loads in your browser. That’s good. But when legibility is at a premium, halo compression errors around pen strokes might render writing illegible.

Publication is subject to unintended compression error. Check out an example from Utah death certificates that is rife with compression errors.

Usage of digitized microfilm is subject to bandwidth limitations. Loading an image online usually takes me two to four seconds on a fast cable modem. It often takes five to ten seconds and not uncommonly takes longer. On a microfilm reader, viewing is instantaneous.

Usage of digitized microfilm eliminates slow scanning capabilities. With microfilm one can quickly scan for names while slowly cranking the wheel of a microfilm reader. This is not possible with current online viewers.

Usage of digitized microfilm eliminates fast scanning capabilities. With microfilm it is possible to pick out volume and section boundaries by scanning for brightness changes while quickly cranking the wheel of a microfilm reader. That is not possible with current online viewers.

Usage of digitized microfilm eliminates intuitive advancement through images. On a microfilm reader, one cranks the wheel several times and then stops to look to see how far one has advanced through the alphabet or through the page numbers. One intuitively can then crank the wheel numerous times to advance to the approximate location on the film. With current online viewers, this requires confusing arithmetic with image numbers that don’t match the page numbers.

In summary, the publication and usage of microfilm online is full of errors and limitations. I strongly recommend that FamilySearch not withdraw microfilm from circulation. And they should not remove the ready access to microfilm from their Salt Lake City Family History Library.

--The Ancestry Insider


  1. I was working with Faulkner County, Arkansas probate records this past weekend on familysearch and was frustrated. The slide with the item number was there, but because the beginning of the film wasn't, I was not sure which film I was looking at. I always have the catalog open in another browser window, to double check what I'm looking at and the description of the film. Familysearch has lumped together many film images into one big collective record set with no way of determining exactly what you're looking at! Now, I'm only mildly complaining--I love having these images online, even if I have to browse. But when I visit SLC later this month, I will be revisiting these films to double check.

  2. I am working on one family tree, and find conflict with other members because the Indices on the web and the digitized pages all report his age at death as 101. However, I first viewed this record on microfilm and concluded at that time that the original page had been modified and the age 101 entered by a different pen or pencil than that used by the census recorder. Someone had evicently gone to the original and changed the age to 101 to agree with what they assumed his age to be when in was in reality 90 or 91. The digitized images do not show the fact of the change,

  3. My job involves digitizing microfilm and I agree with all the points.

    They obviously don't get much use, but we still have paper and microfilm for the Utah Death certificates, plus high resolution scans that, while still only bitonal/black and white, at least wouldn't have compression issues. Compare the same scan hosted at the Utah State Archives here. Also, later on the project better quality greyscale from film or straight from the paper.

  4. Although your article has many valid points, I have found many of the same issues on the microfilms themselves - too dark, too light, missing pages, blurred images, out of focus, etc. Don't blame the digitization process for all of these types of problems.

  5. I agree, Marian. I've seen microfilm images that were worthless. When and if they get digitized I'm sure the digitization process will get blamed. Most of us don't have the luxury of being in driving distance of the Family History Library's treasures, nor the unlimited funds to "buy" microfilm. The digitization process that FamilySearch is doing is like mana to most of us serious genealogists.

  6. I agree that Ancestry Insider raises some valid points of concern over the digitization of microfilm. However, many of these issues could be minimized or eliminated through a mixture of technological improvements and procedural changes in FamilySearch's digitization efforts. In my opinion, FamilySearch should include those title frames that they have apparently chosen to exclude, as those do provide visual cues when advancing from one section of a reel to another. They could also adopt an actual reel metaphor in displaying multiple thumbnails across either the top or bottom of the screen, allowing rapid scrolling or paging through numerous thumbnails in succession. They could also use multiple resolutions of each image, allowing a smaller version to load rapidly in a "zoomed out" mode, but successively higher resolution versions loaded as the user zooms in to see more detail. I agree it is unfortunate that they have apparently chosen to eliminate most of the gray-level data from images, probably to save storage space and speed up load times. I would expect that automated algorithms could be developed to assess an image to determine whether crunching down gray levels in this way would result in loss of any reasonably visible tonal detail in the image, allowing adjustment to minimize the impact on images that benefit from a higher number of gray levels. Some of this may be a matter of "growing pains" as FamilySearch attempts to balance cost and accessibility. Some of it may be a result of false assumptions - that users won't notice or care that they have taken these steps. And if that is the case, hopefully articles such as yours will be brought to their attention so that they might consider dialing back their current approach as too aggressive.


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