Proposed by Robert M. Doerr


Many of the World's important records are on microfilm or other microforms. This is to propose a system to enhance the utility of microforms, especially microfilms. A major consideration is that, as the Internet grows in importance, the need to have materials digitized for posting grows in proportion. The proposed system is designed to aid importantly both in digitizing images and in rendering text equivalents - as for indexing and searching.

Different users of microforms have different needs.

Some need only a quick look at a well-indexed microfilm to hand-copy a small amount of information. An example may be an index on film. The user would prefer a microfilm reader with a powered film-winding mechanism.

Some need make a photocopy of a selected page from each of a substantial set of microfilms. An example may be photoprinting the pages for a certain surname from a set of city directories. The user would prefer a microfilm reader/printer with a powered film-winding mechanism.

Some search long and hard for a record that may not be well-defined in advance, a record to be recognized only when found. An example may be an un-indexed list with many mis-spellings of the data. This user would prefer a hand-wound microfilm reader or a powered one with adjustable film speed.

Some need find a record, whether or not in a well-indexed dataset, and make a photocopy thereof. An example may be a census entry. The user would prefer a microfilm reader/printer with a powered film-winding mechanism.

Some seek to transcribe several rolls of microfilm, say, for publication or for placing on a web page. Such a user may or may not require a powered film drive, but benefits greatly computer assistance and from having the image of the film and the collected data appear in adjacent windows on the computer display or monitor. (My own experience is that, working from paper documents, it is highly advantageous to scan the documents and place a scanned image in one window on the display or monitor, adjacent to a window for the text that I am typing, thus avoiding looking back-and-forth from the original to the display.)

Some may extract, say, for publication or for posting on a web page, data from many places on a roll of film, say birth, marriage, divorce, death, burial and social items from a microfilm of old newspapers. The object might be to collect these types of data into separate files on one pass thru the film. Such a user benefits greatly from computer controls, computer identification of the data type, and from having the image of the film and the collected data in adjacent windows on the monitor. When the image on the film is good, optical character recognition (OCR) can be very useful to speed extraction, but only with immediate and careful correction of the OCR results. Theoretically, one could use a reader/printer to make paper copies to scan for OCR, but each such step leads to loss of accuracy.

Some may need to copy and annotate to a computer selected images from microfilm. Such a user would benefit greatly from having the image of the film and the annotation appear in adjacent windows on the monitor and software to link the notes and the collected images.

The typical microfilm reader is a large unit with a projection system to display an enlarged image on a ground-glass screen or on a reflective opaque surface.

The typical microfilm reader/printer is a large unit with a housed projection system to display an enlarged image on a ground-glass screen, a prism to rotate the image, and means for selecting the area to be photoprinted. These characteristics are hold-overs from the days of analog printing. More modern reader/printers include a digitizing system and a (digital) laser printer. Selected images can be transferred to a computer for subsequent processing, including OCR, but that interferes with making needed immediate corrections to OCR'd data. It is highly inefficient to work back-and-forth between the microfilm controls and display and the computer controls and display.

This is to propose a system that consists of a computer and a small, possibly portable, unit that consists of a film transport, light source, lens and digitizer, in effect, a film carrier, lamp and digital camera (perhaps monochrome). The unit would be connected by an electrical cable only, to the computer. All controls would be by mouse and keyboard. The external unit would be a computer peripheral. One may think of it as a digital camera with a lamp and film carrier.

By eliminating the display system of the typical reader/printer, the cost would be reduced, although savings would be somewhat offset by the cost of the very-high-resolution camera innards. The cost, if only black-and-white images are transduced, may be minor. Thus, work with microforms could be much better and faster, as well as less costly.

The system would be highly convenient for all users.



1. All controls are by computer mouse and keyboard.

2. All displays are on the computer monitor.

3. Microfilm is hand-started on the take-up reel.

4. The carrier accepts microfilm, microcard and microfiche.

5. The display or monitor has a flat screen that is angled 15 to 45 degrees from horizontal.

6. The system runs from a standard Windows computer, via USB2 hub.


1. There are usually two main windows displayed on the monitor, the image of the selected part of the microform image and the user's transcription thereof, plus a disappearing 'tools' panel for each window. The image window includes a small display of the project ID and form ID, location on the microform and user-typed ID of the date and page number. The tools window for each is invoked by right-clicking on the window.

2. Image window tools include microfilm motion (slow), microfilm motion (medium), microfilm motion (fast), zoom in, zoom out, slow microfilm motion speed setting, medium microfilm motion speed setting II, carrier motion, transverse carrier motion, (all motions both forward and reverse), fine focus, scratch and dust removal, slow image rotation (one-degree steps), fast image rotation (ninety-degree steps), rectangular selection, arbitrary selection, arbitrary selection with straight lines only and right-angle corners, image enhancement, OCR selection, print selection, save selection as image (with drop-down box for name of the image file), and return to prior view (from among a number of such specified by the user) (with drop-down screen of 'thumbnails' to select view and 'back' button to step thru prior views, and, when a view is selected, to return precisely to the chosen location, longitudinal and transverse location, and carrier position) and to the dataset for that location.

3. Transcription window tools include file (with drop-down box to choose, and name, new file or from among files already opened), print (with drop-down box to choose whole file or current segment), spell-check and save file.

4. Recording (to hard drive) of transcriptions and saved images, includes source microform, job and dataset, and, at user's option, page and date of material on microform.


For example, user is to work from a microfilm of a 1912 newspaper, to collect death notices, funeral notices, burial permits, marriage data, births recorded, divorce data, society items, news items about people and miscellaneous. During the multi-day process, the user decides to include reports on the sinking of the Titanic. The system provides users easy means to save each of these categories of data is its own file. But there are microforms of many kinds of data, from both printed and hand-written originals.

The user invokes the software by an icon on the taskbar.

The opening window prompts for
Name of project (covers multiple microforms) (to create folder by that name)
Name of sub- folder for text transcriptions, with option to add additional folders from the outset (e.g., for burial permits)
(More sub- folders for text transcriptions may be added during the session.)
Name of sub- folder for images, with option to add additional folders from the outset (e.g., for Titanic photos)
(More sub- folders for images may be added during the session.)
Unique name of present microform (to tag data segments as to microform)
Whether to prompt for date for each selection, with default to last-entered date (drop-down window displays nine recently entered dates)
Whether to prompt for page number for each selection, as for newspaper extracts

If this is the first session of this project with this microform, the form-motion window then opens. The user advances the form to a view that is unique to the microform and presses [Enter]. This point becomes the zero point for the form. The user then invokes the form-motion window (by right-clicking on the image window) and advances the film to the first desired selection.

If this is not the first session of this project with this form, on command, the system advances the film to the zero point. The user then invokes the form-motion window and selects one of the prior locations; the system moves the form to that location and then presumably the user again invokes the form-motion window to seek the next point of interest.


The optical magnification is fairly low so that the entire width of a microfilm is 'seen' by the digitizer at once.

The lens is a macro lens and is very, very good in order to retain detail upon digital zooming.

A glass pressure plate, analogous to those in good 35mm film cameras, is brought to bear when the film is stopped.

The digitizer is highly precise (23 megapixels*) but need not be color-capable. Presumably, the equivalent of four 6-MP digital-camera arrays would be used. [The apparent alternative would be to use a complex set of zoom lenses on a turret. Lens selection and zoom setting would have to be digital for control by the mouse.]

Film is forwarded and reversed by stepping (digital) motors. The carrier is moved both longitudinally and transversely by stepping motors. (Carrier motion, as in the better Minolta carriers, is required to accommodate microfiche but serves also as a significant convenience for work with microfilm.)

*Typical page scanning for OCR is done at 150 dots per inch, or about 9.4 dots per character. A 35 mm microfilm may have 512 characters across. For OCR, that would then require 9.4 x 512 = 4813 dots across. 4813 x 4813 = 23.2 MP.

Please, if you have any suggestions or criticisms regarding this proposal, let me know.


RULE #1, for genealogical organizations and for anyone who influences genealogical research projects, and probably in all walks, must ever be:



Seek out projects on the basis of their genealogical importance, and tackle the most important ones, with due consideration to urgent situations, such as threatened closure or destruction of records.

Do each project so well that it need never be re-done. Sure, some later revisions and corrections may be needed.

If one person keyboards data from a source, another person should work from the same original source to verify the data entries.

To minimize mistakes, avoid hand-copying of data; instead, keyboard directly from the original, or a film or paper photo copy thereof.

If the project concerns, for example, probate records or funeral notices, include an every-name index, and tie each name to the name(s) of the principal(s). Include an index not only to the immediate publication, but also, directly or indirectly, to the source documentation.

If an index is to be created, be sure that it is an index to the most widely available version or source of the material under consideration. For example, never index a scrapbook, say, of newspaper clippings, unless there is no alternative; instead, index the source newspapers.

If the material to be indexed is not widely available, do not just index it, but transcribe from it all of the genealogically significant data.

If there are valuable handwritten records to transcribe or index, give them priority over more valuable printed matter. Technology advances so rapidly that it seems probable that reliable microfilm-to-computer text equipment will be available in a short time. I do not expect dependable OCR software for handwritten material soon.

When more than two volunteers are keyboarding for a project, be sure that someone reliable promptly receives copies of each contributor's daily output, so that none is lost and needs re-do. Be sure also that, if different volunteers are using different software, someone else knows how to consolidate their individual contributions.


The only copies that I have seen of the LDS microfilms of old (for example, Book 6) St. Louis Marriage records are those owned by the St. Louis Genealogical Society. Some are so unreadable (although the originals at City Hall are clear) as to demand re-filming, unless successful re-filming has been achieved. Other originals, especially those on acid paper, at City Hall are deteriorating badly. It seems urgent that the films of these be reviewed, while the possibility of re-filming remains. Also, the originals require re-binding; much of the deterioration stems from the fact that pages are loose in the covers and are damaged when the books are re-shelved.


If organizations such as genealogy clubs, government agencies, the LDS FHL, local FHCs or foundations were to loan portable microfilm readers, and supply films, to interested volunteers who agree to prepare transcriptions, extracts or indexes, I think much could be accomplished. Such organizations, but not individuals, can buy microfilms for such purposes. I base this proposal on the high productivity of folks who have their own microfilm readers next to their computers.
Good portable microfilm readers can be bought new for under $1000.
Frankly, I have no room for a reader, but I have at times done prodigious amounts of such work from paper copies of data.
Consider the millions of obits that have been indexed in the past few years because volunteers can bring newspapers to their computers.
The simple fact is that, with a reader at home next to a computer, one can devote odd intervals to data entry, without shaving, driving, etc., and be highly productive.
The Missouri State Genealogical Association bought a used laptop computer ($60) to loan to volunteers who use it to extract, transcribe or index data for publication by the Association.
On the other hand, a friend did an experiment. She showered, dressed, drove to an archive, traced and fetched the needed film, located a reader, installed the film, advanced to the beginning of the data in question, then had to quit because the time had expired on her parking meter.
Although I am not a good typist, I cannot read my own handwritten notes, so re-copying is out of the question.
If you have influence in any genealogical organization, make the leadership show why it cannot be done.

Situations vary. Many data sources are restricted for use only at the holding institution. Some jobs call for the superior microfilm readers that are often found at institutions. Therefore, it may be more appropriate to bring a computer, perhaps an obsolete one, to an archive to transcribe data. A remarkably primitive computer is fully adequate for data collection; one can type as rapidly on an 8-bit as on a multi-GHz Pentium 4. (I use an ancient TRS-80 Mod. 4P for the purpose.)

Feel free to e-mail Bob Doerr

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Page modified: 05 Apr 2008