This week I spent several days at my local Family History Center examining microfilms I had ordered. Being able to adjust contrast and brightness, enlarge the image, or in a few cases, reduce it to eliminate blurred print, was really great. Sitting in this environment caused me to reflect on my Eastern European archival experiences and to contrast it with the microfilm research.
Finding the microfilms in which I am interested and ordering them doesn’t take much time. Going through the individual records (over 900 record images on each film I was interested in) is very time consuming, but getting access to the film is a simple process.
In Eastern Europe, I needed to ask the archivist for specific records, like getting material from the stacks in some library collections. To my surprise (and delight) the archivists brought me original books. The paper was beautiful – something the microfilm doesn’t capture. In some instances, it was a very thick, rich stock – elegant in appearance. In others, it appeared to be handmade, what we would consider artisan quality.
In Eastern Europe I was not expecting to handle documents directly. But the books in which the vital records (birth, marriage, death, divorce) were recorded were given to me with no gloves, no protection for the pages. I am very glad that there are microfilms available that preserve the records. I am also glad that I had the experience of sitting at a large library table with the original books spread out around me reading each page, looking for clues.
If you have the opportunity to visit Eastern European archives, go equipped with lists of names of people, dates and events, find out if you need to make an appointment in advance to get access to the archive. Definitely find out what is permissible – can you bring a computer, can records be photographed, what are the charges to have copies made? Are there additional charges for anything? Remember to bring gifts with you for especially helpful archivists, guides, translators and researchers.