Saturday, 26 October 2013

Microfilm or original for transcribers?

Microfilm is an excellent conservation medium for archivists; indeed since the 1930's microfilm has preserved records which no longer exist in their original form. I recall the Vicar of a Norwich parish who invited microfilming of his parish register material by the Genealogical Society of Utah in the 1930's in his vestry because he feared that war was possible. The "Baedecker raid" Luftwaffe bombing of Norwich destroyed the church and all parish registers, high explosive blasted the walls of the building and incendiary bombs set fire to roof and interior. The only survivals are those microfilm images.
However the transcriber of parish registers faces several difficulties as a result of the methods used by microfilming. As Online Parish Clerk for Downe the Composite register which begins with an entry in 1529 offers the microfilm viewer an immediate challenge as it is bound in an ancient deed unrelated to the parish. The microfilm therefore presents a puzzling series of images. Duplicate images are also present as a result of instructions to the microfilm operator. The pages contain many faded entries and edge of page folding and these result in duplication of image with focus adjustments on different areas of  the page. Microfilm imperfectly captures pencil entries including the page numbering of the original. If a transcript is produced only from microfilm version it will not be able to collect as many entries as handling the original document. I am fortunate that Bromley Archive have always allowed me to handle original documents. If I had used microfilm or digital images of the Downe register for transcript many entries affected by edge of page date fade would be missing. The omissions from batches of index material for the parish and errors in transcription contained in the International Genealogical Index material are as a result of microfilm only transcription with a lower quality standard for the index entries. The Downe transcripts I undertook have no omissions from the earliest years and are online at the Kent Online Parish Clerks webpage for the parish Downe Parish page.
Handling any paper or parchment document requires personal preparation. First a word of caution. A genealogist colleague ordered up material from an archive and had a cut on his finger. He worked in the archive for several hours and later developed an infection so severe a finger had to be amputated.
The white cotton archival gloves which were used in earlier decades are now regarded as potentially harmful to certain papers because of abrasion and the possibility that laundering them introduces chemicals to the document which will attack both paper and ink pigments. Another disadvantage I have found is the loss of sensitivity and since a transcriber needs to write or type onto a keyboard this is a major disadvantage.
The Conservation Register is the recognised source for professionally qualified restorers and conservators in the UK and Ireland and a couple of years ago I had a paper piece of my grandmothers teenage artwork which was badly in need of paper restoration. I went to a local professional art conservator who works regularly for the major art collections in London and learned a good deal as well as having my grandmother's work listed on the Conservation register. The Register criticise Institutional insistence that staff and researchers don white cotton gloves to prevent dirt and skin oils from damaging collections since gloves are as easily soiled as hands. Gloves also have the disadvantage of collecting and transferring dirt to page surfaces.
Many archives have taken advice from the register as all archives need paper conservators to examine deteriorating material. On visits to the London Metropolitan archive I have been advised by staff of three different methods of handling original material. Different grades of latex gloves are available to deal with:

  • Leather rust. Leather bindings which are red rust both red green and blue and handling a volume for an hour is a dirty business. volume is positioned in a cradle. Transcription is hampered and keyboard cleaning and hygiene before and after is recommended.
  • Brittle paper. During the 1930's to 1950's the quality of printed paper is such that any public records or publications are very fragile and archists have generally prefeered to film or digitise material.
  • Vellum or paper records. These are likely to include any parish material prior to 1754 for marriages when printed paper marriage registers were introduced or the 1812 printed Stationers register for Baptisms and burials. Even storage of relatively modern 20th century registers can result in damage by insects or rodents.
I was a volunteer during my years as a family history student in arranging the contents of three tea chests of early parish register pages in chronological order. One of the chests had a large hole in the corner and sure enough had formed a rats nest. Fortunately the archive had provided gloves gauntlets and a boiler suit for me! Those original pages were later bound and microfilmed and are complete with little damage and no loss of entries.
From personal experience I recommend that before handling an original document you should ask for instruction from the archivist responsible. Thoroughly wash your hands to the personal hygiene standard for food hygiene and ensure you protect any cuts in the way you would for food handling before you handle the documents.Use protective gloves if advised to (I take a personal supply) as the document you are handling may contain bacteria and if rodent damage is present it is possible the paper may harbour harmful bacteria. I use my right hand to touch the document and type with my left and wipe clean my keyboard before and after any session.
I have for many years used essential oils and when I have ended work in an archive I thoroughly wash my hands and then apply tea tree oil which is a powerful antiseptic. I dispose of gloves used in a clinical waste bag and my local hospital and family doctor surgery accept clinical waste.The microfilm of the 1812 Downe Baptismal register is so faint for many years as to be of limited use for transcription and the original is legible. This remaining challenge is nearing completion. I have some concerns about the efforts of online indexing  for example by FamilySearch Indexing volunteers where the original filming appears to produce indexes with no correction feature and which are clearly wrong resulting in failures of search engines to locate entries in the original material. The England & Wales census series only available on microfilm for indexers illustrates the difference between The Ancestry index with corrections included and Family Search version with no corrections. I do hope that FamilySearch enable corrections soon!

Copyright Henry Mantell 2013