It happens to all historians eventually. You go to the British Library or the National Archives, and what you thought was going to be a book turns out to be a box with a roll of film inside it. This roll of film has an astonishing ability to unwind itself at the speed of light, under any and all desks, leaving you scrambling around under the disapproving glares of those who have long since mastered the art of the microfilm machine – or deliberately choose their sources to avoid it!
If you’re a local historian, or using local history sources, you might find a whole cabinet full of useful information, with the proviso that you must sort through hundreds of reels of microfilm to find the date you want. Local newspapers galore, but only the tiniest fraction of them digitised. And, even when they’re digitised and fully searchable (I love the British Newspaper Archive, don’t get me wrong) it doesn’t find the term you’re looking for, or there’s a day missing, or it loads fuzzy.
Once you’ve got the microfilm to the reader, you then have the next dilemma. How does it go on? Every machine is different, or almost every one. Cambridge Central library has several different types of machine, all of which load different, act differently, and all but two of which have a button that will suddenly and violently rewind the entire film, just when you’re nearly at the bit you want. I tend to use the manual ones. By the time you get to December 1914 your arm feels like it’s going to fall off, especially with the prospect of winding it all back looming over you like the film-strip of Damocles, but it’s not going to get bored with life and just randomly rewind.
They’re so noisy too! Always they’re kept in the quietest part of a library or archive, and always they make such a racket. Especially if you hit that violent rewind button. I feel like everyone is looking at me when I use them, desperate to tell me to SHHHH this is a library.
Don’t even get me started on the slightly insane/sadistic person who evidently did some of the Cambridgeshire newspapers. Some are upside down. Some have page 8 of the previous newspaper after page 1 of the new one. Some are just just generally poor quality and you can’t see what the text actually says.
Your other option is, of course, microfiche. Unlike film, it’s a nice, flat piece of, well, I’m not sure. Acetone? Negative film? Something, anyway. You slide it in, realise it’s upside down, slide it in again, now it’s back to front, finally get it the right way up, and start hunting around for the page you want in amongst thirty other pages all on the same piece of fiche. Positively tame, though I’ve only ever seen it used for parish registers, not newspapers. And microfiche is not without its difficulties. Just try setting up the changeable machines (you know the ones I mean, they do microfilm and microfiche, and you always have to ask the staff nicely to swap them round because there are clips and levers and… Argh!)
Now that I have shared my microfilm/fiche agonies, I’m off to the library to look at local newspapers. If I never post again, the microfilm machine ate me alive, or a roll of microfilm escaped, wrapped itself round my neck, and slowly choked me to death.