Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The olden days

Kerry Scott (Clue Wagon) posted this photo on Facebook and boy did it open up a great conversation!

Copyright © 2015 Kerry Sandberg Scott, used with permission


I remember how excited I was when the 1880 census was released on CD by the Family History Library. It was actually a binder containing 56 CDs!   Before that I had to go to the library in downtown Tampa and look at the census index books and then pull the microfilm and then try and find my family.  These CDs were a godsend because they were also indexed.  For the first time ever I could sit at home and look at census records at my leisure, at least for this one census year.  I also bought various other record sets on CD from Family Tree Maker and before that, Broderbund.  Almost all of these were simple indexes or abstracts. I was THRILLED to get these indexes and abstracts on CD. Getting original records wasn’t nearly as easy to do back then.  This was before anything was available online. 

I was able to order microfilm at my local Family History Center.  In the picture you will see the way we used to access the card catalog.  You would order an index film, wait four weeks for it, find your family on the index, order the actual film you needed, wait another four weeks, and then finally you would have a single marriage license. You would repeat that process for every single document you needed. If you found multiple documents for your family on a single microfilm you would throw a party. 

You haven’t lived until you have hand cranked microfilm for 4-6 hours at a time.  I used to leave the library with a splitting headache. Back in those days there were no microfilm readers with automatic anything and you certainly couldn’t hook your computer or a flash drive up to it.  If you were lucky enough to score the one microfilm reader that could do copies you could print pages, if not, you did it the hard way, you hand wrote everything into a notebook.  Oh yes, this was before digital cameras.

You could also write to repositories to get record.  This wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds.  You would have to type up a nice letter, guess on how much money you should enclose, and then wait, and wait, and wait.  You had to keep close track on the letters you had sent out and if you didn’t get a response back you would have to send a second request.  Today we pick up the telephone and many times the transaction can be handled right on the phone thanks to debit cards. 

The only other way to get information was to travel.  With five children at home that was impossible both moneywise and logistically.  That is why indexes and abstracts on CD were so important.

So many things have changed.  Let’s just say I am happy to pay my subscriptions for online access.


Copyright © 2015 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Oh yes! The memories of going to a library or archive, paying for parking, cranking the microfilm reader until bleary-eyed, taking a break, and coming back for more!
    And writing to courthouses -- once I called to ask the fee, made sure they had the marriage record for the year I needed (I had the index with the exact date from Ancestry.com), wrote a nice letter, enclosed my check, and mailed it off. And then I waited and waited. Finally I got a reply - no record found! And I didn't get my check back, either. Boohoo! A couple of years later FamilySearch.org had a digital image of the marriage license. So I finally got my copy. Woohoo! So grateful for all the information on the Internet, especially the digital images of the records.

    1. I will tell you one thing. Looking at microfilm using a crank can be a lot faster than loading digital images. With practice you can scan census records for a surname FAST.

  2. I bought a new computer in 2000 and immediately began ordering census CDs from Heritage Quest. They were not indexed, but that didn't matter to me. I read page by page. I still have these CDs, but haven't used them in a long time. Not sure if they would work with today's computers. Now HQ gets its online images from Ancestry and there is no alternative image if the Ancestry image is not good.
    Yes, things have changed over the years, but the research process should remain the same.