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Coming to our Census: The End of Microfilm?

by Steve Paul Johnson - December 19, 1999

Current scanning technology can place an entire county census record on a single CD-ROM. No more fussing with faulty microfilm readers, faded microfilms, and money hungry printers. Will this spell the end of microfilm?

Jon McInnis had planned to spend a few hours at the library using U.S. Census records to research his family history. The library had only a few microfilm readers, and there too many people wanting to use them. It took him the whole day before he was finished. And when he tried to print out some cells, the print came out so sloppy that he had to print them several times before he was happy with the results. He searched the Internet for census records, and while there were some, they were very little, and even then, they were prone to keying errors, and did not include EVERY piece of information.

Such is often the case with most researchers using microfilm. With so much material on microfilm, every genealogist becomes an expert on using them, and every genealogist knows the frustrations.

Popular films get scratched up, and mysteriously, some get lost. When a film is left sitting under light for too long, it gets faded. Printing a cell seems to always cost more than it should, as it usually takes two or three quarters to print out a "readable" copy. If a lot of people are visiting your local library, there are too few film readers and printers to go around, and you end up waiting for your turn.

McInnis figured he wasn't the only one getting frustrated with microfilms. In July of 1997 he started "Allcensus", a company that produces CD-ROMs of the U.S. Census. Using the latest scanning technology, Allcensus produces graphic images of each U.S. Census page and records them on a CD-ROM that can be used on any personal computer.

But even more than this, each image is "enhanced" bring out faint writing, and uses contrast to bring out the writing on those dark blotches that appear on the edges of the film. Thus, the images are actually easier to read, and allows users to get more information than compared to microfilm.

The price of a single cd-rom is very affordable, ranging from $10.00 to $100.00. To date, Allcensus has taken over 2,000 orders.

Certainly, using the CD-ROM has many advantages over the microfilm:

  • A person can use the CD-ROM on their own personal computer, in the comfort of their own home. Saves fuel from driving to a library, and allows one to maximize their research time.
  • The images are enhanced so that information is easier to read. An image can be magnified to any level. And, there is no need to focus the images.
  • Each image can be printed on any laser or ink-jet printer, for the mere cost of a piece of paper. No more need to feed quarters into a machine and having to adjust the focus and brightness.

Linda Nebrich Beilein is ready for a paradigm-shift. She lives in a rural area of Upstate New York, and the nearest Family History Center is 45 miles away. She purchased her own microfilm reader, a cost of $539.00, and that's in addition to her personal computer. She must purchase all her films, as libraries will not allow her to take any home.

When asked if she was ready for the digital age, she said, "Yes, and I have purchased CD-ROMs for this purpose". But digital images are not just for CD-ROMs. Think of the possibilites of serving them up on the Internet.

A sample from an actual scanned image produced by Allcensus.

The future of microfilm

If computer and scanning technology can do this for us, will this spell the end of microfilm?

In the past five years, insurance companies have spent millions of dollars installing high-speed document scanning systems to archive paper-based claim records. In past decades, insurers have had to microfilm their records and hire people to store and retrieve them. Today, scanned images are stored in large servers and are instantly available to any claim adjuster at the press of a button. Banks have been enjoying the benefits of electronic and scanned documents for the last two decades.

What's makes scanned images even more valuable is its portability. Image records can instantly move from one desk to another via computer network. Whereas with microfilms, the records had to be first printed out, and then hand carried from one desk to another. If the paper records lost their way around the office, it had to be recalled from the archives again. Images can be sent across the world instantly, whereas paper has to be faxed or mailed.

For genealogical purposes, the same is true. Imagine a website that contains a databank of scanned U.S. Census images, with every census page available to users. Instantly download an image, print it out, and save it to your hard drive for later use. No need to drive to a library. Have it all on your computer. You don't have to keep three-ring binders full of photocopies. Perhaps a company like Allcensus may one day have a web-based subscription service that serves up image-based records on demand.

For genealogists on the go, simply plug your laptop into the phone jack of the hotel room, dial into the Internet, and download images. Even these days, handheld computers are capable of storing as much as 64Mb of data, easily allowing the genealogist to store several image-based records in their coat pocket.

Unfortunately, genealogy has slowly entered the computer age when compared to other institutions. The United States government is still largely using microfilms to archive records. City and county governments in rural areas still archive records in paper form. It's only the commercial entities who are storing electronic and image documents.

Scanning equipment is very expensive, requiring several years before the technology actually pays for itself. The savings will be realized in staffing, reducing the number of hours it takes produce archives, and eliminating the need for people to retrieve them, as well as eliminating the need to build warehouses to store films.

But the bigger issue is, who is going to create images of all microfilm records? So far, only companies like Allcensus are willing do this, as long as there is a way for them to profit. Because imaging requires several years to pay for itself, no administration is willing commit funds for the conversion.

All in all, microfilms will be around through the next century. But as the century goes by, there will be less and less records archived on microfilm. Companies like Allcensus will spark a paradigm shift in genealogical research. It's only starting with census records. There are still church records, immigration records, muster rolls, marriage certificates, and list goes on. If banks and insurance companies are doing it right now, it's only a matter of time when it will happen to Genealogy.

What about the USGenWeb Census Project?

The USGenWeb has a project going whereby volunteers actually enter census data into computer files. They are not producing graphic images of census pages, rather they are extracting data from the pages, and entering them into computer databases.

The advantage to this is that the data can be searched by keyword, as opposed to having to use a census index. But the problem is that the data is prone to keying errors and interpretations. How many times have you seen a census page where the writing is so sloppy that you have a tough time figuring out what it says? The volunteers are having just as much of a tough time, and you as the researcher are at the mercy of the volunteer's best judgement. WIth scanned images, each user can make their own judgement, and has the peace of mind knowing that they are looking at the actual census page, rather than someone else's "extraction".

When it's YOUR family you are researching, you are still going to want to see the actual census page to make sure that the volunteer keyed and interpreted the information correctly. The Census Project will perhaps serve as an excellent index, using its search engine to find names across all census decades. Then, the researcher can request an image to view the actual details and do the "real" research.

- Steve Paul Johnson

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and is the webmaster of Cemetery Records Online.

To visit the Allcensus CD-ROMs and CD-ROM catalog visit the Allcensus Affiliate Site.

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