Moving Beyond 'Digital Genealogy': Exploring Newspapers on Microfilm

I have been feeling inspired to delve deeper into how newspapers can enrich genealogical research. The National Library of Australia has hosted a couple of great webinars in recent times, discussing search techniques for Trove and exploring their eResources. While some of us may still see physical research as a genealogical mainstay, reliance on electronic resources is becoming increasingly common. This can come at a detriment to the exhaustiveness of our research. In this blog post, I discuss getting back to our roots (no pun intended) and exploring newspapers in print and on microfilm.

The inside of Brisbane’s State Library of Queensland, 5 August 2019.

The inside of Brisbane’s State Library of Queensland, 5 August 2019.

The Rise of 'Digital Genealogy'

As someone born in the mid-1990s, I am most definitely a child of the Computer Age. While that has afforded me many benefits, for genealogy it has also restricted the sort of research that I do. Like a lot of people, I fell into error early on by copying names and facts from public trees without consulting the sources (if any) at all. As I became a more experienced genealogist, I of course learnt that this was wrong. But as time went by, it made me further consider just how much emphasis we now place on so-called 'digital genealogy'.

There is something satisfying, and intensely personal, about scrolling through old newspapers. The manual operation of the microfilm scanners only seems to add to the thrill. My first foray into microfiche was only a year or so ago, but it has revoluntionised my perspective on genealogy and expanded my knowledge on available resources. While it is true that a lot of old physical media have been digitised, many collections still remain in archives and libraries around the world. These are meccas for family history research—and anyone who appreciates genealogy should be excited by the prospect of delving into their collections.

Finding Newspaper Notices

I previously discussed using Airtable for genealogy. In that post and its corresponding video tutorial, I laid out my process for finding and collating records from the Ryerson Index. This is where we take it one step further. Once I have amassed a list of names and dates, and the opportunity arises, I head down to Brisbane's State Library of Queensland and immerse myself in the family history section on level 3.

Some of the microfilm holdings on level 3 at SLQ, 5 August 2019.

Some of the microfilm holdings on level 3 at SLQ, 5 August 2019.

My Scanning Workflow

1. Consult my list and pick a record

I start by reviewing my printed list and identifying a record I’d like to find. I usually group my list by newspaper and then chronologically by date, systematically viewing all of the notices for a particular newspaper before moving on to the next. I will usually try to find anywhere between 10 and 30 notices in a single session, to make the most of my time in the library, taking around 3-4 hours in total. I also take time to review the list before my visit, and place any orders for items in storage to be available when I arrive (such as the Canberra Times, which is held in storage at SLQ).


2. Identify the microfilm call number

Using either the library’s online catalogue or the printed finding aid in the family history section, I identify the call number for the microfilm reel holding the particular issue of the newspaper that I’m looking for. Queensland’s state library has a vast array of newspaper holdings, mostly for metropolitan and regional Queensland but also interstate and international papers. The library staff are also a great resource if you can’t seem to find the paper you’re looking for.

3. Collect the microfilm and load into the viewer

Once I have the call number for the microfilm, I locate the reel on the shelf and remove it from its box. I usually only take one reel at a time, but if you have multiple notices spanning a few months of a year, I have found it acceptable to retrieve more than one. I then load the selected reel into the ST ViewScan 4 machine and wind it to the beginning of the filming. I prefer to use the state library’s newer microfilm scanners as they allow for greater latitude when it comes to cropping and saving images. The older machines are still there, but as a technology nerd I find the newer systems more intuitive and flexible.

One of the many ST ViewScan 4 machines at SLQ, 5 August 2019.

One of the many ST ViewScan 4 machines at SLQ, 5 August 2019.

An example of a microfilm reel box, 5 August 2019.

An example of a microfilm reel box, 5 August 2019.

4. Scan through to find the required notice

Now comes the fun part (or so I like to think)—scanning through the reel to find the right notice/s! Depending on how many newspapers have been microfilmed on a particular reel, it is often easy to get close to the right issue by checking how much film is left. If a reel covers a whole month and you’re looking for a notice published on the 15th, winding through to about halfway should get you close. Another tip is to use the index on the first page of each issue to quickly find the right page—often death and funeral notices are on a page titled something like ‘Personal Notices’ or even ‘Classifieds’. The ST ViewScan 4 allows for manual (forward and back, both fast and slow) and digital operation. I often find it easier to keep my hand on the mouse and do everything at the dual monitors.

My scanning setup showing the ST ViewScan 4 on the left, dual monitors and laptop, 5 August 2019.

My scanning setup showing the ST ViewScan 4 on the left, dual monitors and laptop, 5 August 2019.

Example of the cropping and saving tools for the ViewScan, 5 August 2019.

Example of the cropping and saving tools for the ViewScan, 5 August 2019.

In the saving options pane, 5 August 2019.

In the saving options pane, 5 August 2019.

5. Select, scan and name the notice

Once the right notice has been found, I navigate to the cropping tab and make my selections. I usually scan both the full page and a close-up of the notice I’m interested in. I then immediately save the image files to my thumb drive in TIF format.

I name the files using my standard genealogy naming convention, to save time down the track and to act as a checking tool when reviewing my list of notices. Luckily the new microfilm scanners at SLQ make this a quick and easy job. I make sure to save each notice and its page as soon as it has been scanned, just in case an error crops up or the power goes out!

To conclude the workflow, I rewind the film at high speed, replace the reel in its box and place it on the returns shelf. Then it’s time to move on to the next one!

Other Resources

Of course, newspapers are not the only family history offering available at libraries and archives. Depending on the repository, holdings may include BDM indices, electoral rolls, immigration records, and local ephemera. You can learn more about each of the major Australian and NZ libraries through their family history research guides below:

Queensland: https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/research-collections/family-history

NSW: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/research-and-collections-using-library/researching-your-family-history

VIC: https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/family-history-tools-resources

Tasmania: https://libraries.tas.gov.au/family-history/Pages/default.aspx

SA: https://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/collections/family-history

WA: https://slwa.wa.gov.au/explore-discover/family-history

National Library (AUS): https://www.nla.gov.au/research-guides/family-history

National Library (NZ): https://natlib.govt.nz/researchers/guides/family-history