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Researchers Help

2 Posts authored by: Caitlin Gale Expert

You’ve visited the Textual Research room and submitted a pull request only to get back a yellow paper saying your request is available on Microfilm.


Don’t Panic! That means you don’t have to wait for another pull time. Instead you can head straight for the Microfilm research room (ground floor at Archives 1, fourth floor at Archives 2), which is self-serve!  That yellow slip probably came with an alpha-numeric publication number (e.g. M23 or A3340).  Bring the pull slip and yellow paper to the Microfilm Research Room, as that will help the research room staff find your records.


How to find your reels:

To find microfilm, you can either go through the main Archives Catalog or the Microfilm Catalog to see which National Archives sites hold that publication, as well as if that publication series has a descriptive pamphlet for you to use (and download).  Descriptive pamphlets allow you to narrow down which reels you’ll need. There are also finding aids in the research room to help you find what you are looking for.


***HINT!  Several older Microfilm Publications (usually of pre-1850s records) have been compiled into published collections, which will usually be noted in the descriptive pamphlet. Some of these, such as the Naval documents related to the quasi-war between the United States and France, 1797-1801, have also been digitized by various organizations.  The site HathiTrust may well be worth a quick check!


Once you know your publication and reel numbers, you’ll need to find their location. In College Park at Archives 2, we use a large binder, known as the Locator. It is arranged alphabetically by publication type, and lists publication number, series title, location (Cabinet/Drawer), if it was declassified, and if there is a descriptive pamphlet. Once you’ve found your publication in the cabinet, you can take out four reels at a time.


Meanwhile, in downtown DC at Archives I, you can pull one reel at a time. There, you'll use the Location Register in the Microfilm Room on the ground floor to find the location of the microfilm that you're looking for. The book is arranged by publication number as well as according to the Record Group number.


How to make reproductions:

In an effort to ensure that all researchers have access to the types of readers they need, we ask researchers to sign up for a reader time slot based on their particular microfilm reader needs (see our previous History Hub post for more information).


In downtown DC at A1, there are 15 functional Microfilm readers (9 for scanning, 4 for printing, and 4 for viewing).


Here in College Park at A2, our Microfilm Research Room has 14 Microfilm readers (2 for scanning to USB, 5 for printing, and an additional 7 for viewing/taking notes/photographs). Those two scanning machines are available on a sign-in, first-come first-serve basis, with each sign-in period lasting 45 minutes.  The scanners allow you to edit the microfilm image prior to saving. 


But if you are unable to use one of them, don’t worry!  Here are a couple tricks you can use to get the best image on non-scanning machines. You’ll need a smart phone or digital camera.

  1. You can use one of many free (or inexpensive) scanning apps which you download on your phone.  These allow you to use your phone’s camera as a handheld scanner and save the image as a PDF. Many allow minor editing to be done in the app before you export the file.
  2. Even easier is to switch your camera or smart phone to a grey-scale or black and white filter.  Particularly on older microfilm readers, this produces a crisper image as well as eliminates much of the bulb bust-effect created by the light within the reader.  This is especially useful for handwritten documents that have been microfilmed. (Compare the below images)

bulb bust.jpgA photo taken of a Minolta reader, with no filter

bw.jpgA photo taken of a Minolta reader, with a Black/White filter



After that, you can use whatever photo-editing software you prefer to adjust the contrast, clarity, and brightness of your images to your liking. We also offer camera and smart phone stands for your convenience, and there are outlets at each station for your charging cables.


How to load a machine:


Staff in the Microfilm research room will be happy to show you how to load, unload, and use any machine. However, should you like a refresher course, please see the following YouTube tutorials:


Loading and operating a Minolta microfilm reader


Loading a PowerScan microfilm reader


Operating a PowerScan microfilm reader



General Tips:

  • Gently pulling the loading tray forward (whether on the Minoltas or scanners) allows the glass to lift so you can thread the film through without damaging it.


  glass minolta.jpg

Minolta feed tray pulled forward, and glass lifted




glass scanpr.jpgScanner feed tray pulled forward, and glass lifted



  • Please make sure you match your microfilm reel size to the same take up size (16 mm to 16 mm, 35mm to 35mm).
  • If you are working on a Minolta reader, there are two lens sizes available: #2 (9-16x zoom) and #3 (13-27x zoom).  The top knob (blue) controls your zoom, and the bottom knob (grey) controls your focus. If you need a different size lens, please let staff know.


Minolta Lenses


  • If using a ScanPro microfilm reader, there are three things you should double check:
      1. You have turned the scanner ON (indicated by a green light on front of machine) – or the program will not open.

                 2. You have plugged your USB into the dongle on the desk (shown below) – NOT into the computer itself. dongle.jpg

ScanPro USB dongle



                  3. You have told the scanner to save to your USB (or it will default-save to the computer and be very difficult for staff to retrieve)


When done with your microfilm:

When you are finished with your reel, pull the tray forward again.  This will allow you to ‘speed’ rewind.  Then remove the rewound reel and return it to its box.  We ask that researchers refrain from refiling their own microfilm reels, but instead place them on the cart provided.  Staff will refile microfilm reels to ensure they are returned to their correct locations.

Noticed anything new about the Microfilm Research Room lately? This spring, we took care of some housekeeping, checked (and re-checked) our open access holdings, and gave the room a total overhaul!  So head on up to the fourth floor of our College Park facility (A2) and check it out!


Following up on multiple researcher comments and requests, we’ve moved around the Microfilm readers to allow researchers to have more desk space while using them, and shifted the finding aid shelves to make them more convenient to use (again – more desk space!).  We’ve also got new, adjustable chairs to go along with the new, higher desks .


The Finding Aid shelves, now on the opposite wall



We’ve also fully re-numbered and re-labeled the Microfilm cabinets. This ties in with the newly updated Microfilm locator.  The physical locations of microfilm series within the room have, for the most part, not changed, but to be on the safe side you should still double-check the locator. We ask that researchers refrain from refiling their own microfilm reels, but instead place them on the black cart provided.  Staff will refile microfilm reels to ensure they are returned to their correct locations.



One of two carts for returning microfilm reels



Another new change to Microfilm has to do with the fact that we are entering the summer busy season here at NARA. The increase in researchers is particularly noticeable in the Microfilm Research Room, as we only have 14 Microfilm readers (2 for scanning to USB, 5 for printing, and an additional 7 for viewing/taking notes/photographs).


In an effort to ensure that all researchers may have access to the types of readers they need to use, we ask that upon entering the Microfilm Research Room, researchers sign up for a reader time slot based on their particular microfilm reader needs (i.e. if you plan to only use a digital camera, please sign up for a viewer-only machine, not a scanning or printing machine).



The Sign-Up Sheets for Printing and Viewing Microfilm Readers

These time slots are for 45 minutes, and you may only sign up for one slot at a time.  As it gets close to the end of a time slot, you may check to see if the next slot is empty and if it is, sign up for the next slot. However, if someone has signed up after you, you will need to move to another reader (if available) or wait until the next open slot.  You may not sign up for multiple slots at one time.

This is the same policy we have with our two USB-scanning microfilm readers year-round.



The Sign -Up Sheets for the Scanning Microfilm Readers

Again, this is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to view their documents and reproduce them as necessary, particularly for those researchers who may only be visiting us for a short while.




Coming soon:  A #ResearcherProTip post on microfilm tips and how-to’s, so you can maximize your effectiveness when using a technology that dates back to the nineteenth century ;-)