'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


January 26 2015

How not to run screaming from the microfilm room

The meat and potatoes of Irish genealogical research used to consist of hour after hour spent at a National Library microfilm reader slowly going through a Catholic parish register. The main qualification to be able to do this is a very high boredom threshold. Particularly useful is the ability to switch off all the brain except the one small part searching for a particular name. Eventually, with practice, it becomes possible to adjust that part to cover more than one name at a time.

In other words, the main talent required is the ability not to run screaming from the microfilm room.

I've spent years not running screaming from the microfilm room and here are the two lessons I've learnt: First, although not much of the brain is directly engaged, it's not possible to do a lot with what's left over. If you try, you run the very real risk of drifting into a daydream and having to start the register all over again.

And having to start the register all over again is one of the prime causes of running screaming from the microfilm room. All you can really do in the bit of your mind spared by the research trance is note the angle of light falling on the page image, the changing quality of the ink, the deterioration in the priest's signature over the years. And the names. Not specific names, rather the great unending river of names that flows past under your nose, and the fact that every single individual in it, without exception, is long dead. Genealogy teaches you the sheer scale of everyday mortality like nothing else.

The second lesson is that microfilm is one of life's great evils. We're not completely done with the parish register films just yet, but we're nearly there. And when the National Library has finished its digitisation and makes a great bonfire of them, I'll dance around the flames.

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