Category Archives: microfiche

Another Reason to Love Your Local Library

As part of the research for my latest project, I’ve been closely scouring the Washington Post from the mid-1950s on.  While doing research at the Library of Congress last year, one of their typically awesome librarians helpfully steered me away from the microfiche and over to the online resource ProQuest.

If you’re not a research nerd, I’ll explain.  ProQuest is a database made up of tons of different newspapers — the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor , to name just a few — with every page scanned into a pdf file.  You can pull up a full page, look it over, and if you see something you want to read, you simply click on the article and a new pdf file will pop up with the article on it all by itself.  Everything is clickable, from the crossword puzzle to the comics to the ads. 

But what makes the system really useful is that you can type in search words — like the name of your subject, for example — hit RETURN, and the search engine scours all the pdfs for your search terms.  That saves you from having to crank through a microfilm, scanning for an article or headline — the sort of thing that makes me motion sick when I do it for hours on end.

Anyhow, as I’ve been writing my sample chapters for my latest project, there have been times when I’ve wished I could get back into the ProQuest system to look some things up.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get down to the Library of Congress to log into their system.

Finally, I decided to see if my local library might at least have old microfilm of the Washington Post that I might be able to use, so I got onto the website of my county library to do a bit of poking around.

To my surprise, our county library system has ProQuest access to a few newspapers, including the Washington Post. Not only that, you don’t even have to come in to the library to use it.  If you’ve got a library card (and I do), you can use your card’s ID number to log into the system from home. Fantastic, and just what I needed. 

So, consider this a shout out for a job well done, Montgomery County Public Libraries.  Just another reason to love your local library — and if you haven’t visited your local library in a while, or poked around on its website, go ahead and do so.  They won’t mind a bit.

Tuesday Afternoon

Sorry to miss you here yesterday, but I was at the library. And not just the library, but the library — the Library of Congress. I spent most of yesterday hunkered down in the Periodicals Reading Room of the Madison Building doing some research on my current work in progress — which is still in a way too scattered state for me to announce anything yet, sorry. At the moment, I’m just poking.

I love the Madison Building. With its stone pillared facade and drab interiors, it doesn’t have the old world charm or glamour of the Jefferson Building, but it makes up in substance what it lacks it style. You can wander the halls and the reading rooms freely — provided you have your library card, of course — and lots of books and reference materials are readily available without having to submit a formal request that can sometimes take a while to process before the book hits your desk.

The Periodicals Reading Room is an efficient, businesslike space. One end is crammed with row after row of shelves lined with hardcover indexes to more major metropolitan newspapers than you can imagine, as well as guides to public documents, Presidential letters and papers, and the Congressional Record. Tucked up just behind these shelves are tables for reading and research, and some angled desks where you can spread out older documents or manuscripts.

Dividing the room up the middle are several rows of cubicles with computers. Signs at each cubicle warn readers that these computers are Strictly for Browsing the Library’s Electronic Catalog, but most readers were quietly checking e-mail or watching YouTube videos — but with headphones on, I noticed, so as not to disturb those around them. (One patron was even playing what appeared to be a online version of Donkey Kong.) There’s also a small area for making photocopies — and you’ll need to purchase one of the library’s copy cards to do so.

On the other end of the room are tidy columns of filing cabinets full of microfiche versions of major newspapers like The Washington Post, New York Times, the London Times and Wall Street Journal, some dating as far back as 200 years. In fact, the files for the New York Times date all the way back to September 18, 1851, starting with volume 1, number 1, when it was the four-page New-York Daily Times. This is where I spent most of my day, shuttling armfuls of microfiche boxes from the cabinets back to my microfiche reader back in the far corner.

A microfiche reader is one of those really interesting old-school pieces of equipment that still works just as well today as it did a generation ago: simply load the film onto an overhead spool, flick on the light switch, and the image is projected onto the white surface below. Need to advance a page? Turn the crank on the side, and the image spins past. When you’re done, handcrank with all your might to reload the film on the spool. Efficient? Not really. But it works.

The only real problem I have with microfiche is that, even as I whiz the pages past, my eyes tend to try to follow each page. So I spend hours with my eyes quickly flicking back and forth, which makes me feel somewhat seasick by the end of the day. Suffice it to say, I staggered out of the library at 4:00 looking like I’d just stepped off the Pequod.