Microfilm Search Strategies

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Because many census searches are still made on microfilm, below are some suggestions to make research easier.

  1. Become familiar with the surnames in your area so that you can recognize them with only half of their letters distinct. Study a county history, a tax list, or a landowner’s atlas.
  2. Create a “pony” from the actual entries in the census. How does the writer make a, h, s, p, j, and other letters which could be misinterpreted? Draft an alphabet with uppercase and lowercase letters for comparison. An easy way is to slip a piece of plain paper onto the viewing surface and trace the letters from the page.
  3. Use a reader in a darkened room, with a strong light to project the image. Slip a colored piece of paper—pink, yellow, and green are effective—onto the viewing surface.
  4. Copy the microfilmed page, enlarging or reducing the image to make it clearer and sharper. Many microfilm copiers have interchangeable lenses.
  5. Review the whole schedule so you don’t miss important entries that appear out of place. Record all columns for each entry, even if the information seems unimportant, and record all members of the household whether they are familiar or not. In multiple-family dwellings, record all family units living in the building. These families are often related, especially in immigrant settlement areas.
  6. Copy the data exactly as it appears in the record. If the given name is abbreviated, copy the abbreviated form. Do not expand it. If the entry is crossed through or changed, copy the entry, the cross-through line, and the changes. Note carefully the last entry on each page. Family units may be split between two pages without a repeat of the surname.
  7. Use finding tools and indexes to get into the census quickly, then search the census carefully to get all the data it contains (see the reference list). If all the data is available, it is possible to block out the pedigree for several generations from this source alone. Then, proof can be sought in other records to ensure that names in the pedigree really belong there. If you are researching a common name like Brown or Jones, the censuses can help eliminate those that do not fit, making searches in other sources less time-consuming.