Tips for Reading Microfilm

By Diane Haddad Premium


Combine faded records, old handwriting, ink splotches and images whirring by, and you see how using a microfilm reader can be a somewhat uncomfortable experience (we know people who have actually gotten seasick). These tips will have you scrolling like a pro:

Choosing Your Reader

  • Try to choose a machine in the darkest area of the library.
  • Before loading the film into the machine, look at the glass plates that sandwich the film. If they’re dirty, ask the librarian for a paper towel and cleaner so you can wipe them off. If they’re scratched, find another machine.
  • Wipe dust off the projection surface or screen, too.
  • Switch to another type of machine if you don’t like the one you’re using. People who wear bifocals or glasses with graduated lenses often find microfilm readers with vertical screens easier to read.

Reading the Film

  • If the image seems too light or fuzzy, experiment with the light setting, focus knob and magnification.
  • Placing a sheet of light blue, light green or yellow paper on the projection surface might help you read the film. If your machine displays the image on a vertical screen, hold a blue, green or yellow transparency sheet over it. (You can purchase these sheets at an office supply stores and tuck them into your research tote.)
  • Bring a magnifying glass to hold up to the image (the library may have one you can borrow).

Printing the Record Image

  • Print both light and dark copies—if the image has light spots in one area and dark spots in another, you may need both printouts to read the whole document.
  • Similarly, try printing both positive (black on white) and negative (white on black) versions of the record.

Avoiding Motion Sickness

  • Look away from the reader when you scroll (stop and check the film often to see where you are). If you feel yourself getting nauseous, take a break and go check out the Family History books.
  • If you’re really prone to motion sickness, take a nondrowsy over-the-counter medication such as Dramamine before you go to the library.

Having trouble using the machine or reading the film? Ask the library staff for help—that’s what they’re there for.