1800 census record for Charleston, S.C. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Use these pro tips for handling poorly reproduced images from microfilm or microfiche.

Dear Professor Gates:

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You answered a question I had about one of my ancestors in the 2016 column “Was My Southern Ancestor Adopted?” I have since been able to get ahold of the medical records of Mary Ryman from Bryce Hospital. However, the copies were from a microfiche record, and the letters that were enclosed with her record are barely legible. Are there any services that can help with trying to read these documents? —Anna Stewart

We remember finding, with the help of New England Historic Genealogical Society senior researcher Meaghan E.H. Siekman, that lead on the identity of a woman who matched what you knew about the birth mother of your African-American grandfather, Grover Cleveland Ryman Jr. We uncovered a death record for Mary Ryman, a white woman who died in 1940 in the infamous psychiatric facility that, at the time, was known as the Alabama Bryce Insane Hospital. We are glad you found her documents, and have the following advice for helping you to read them better so that your family can have the answers it seeks.

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First, we understand how frustrating it can be to search exhaustively for a record documenting an ancestor, sometimes for years, only to find that the image you receive is difficult to read! Using original-source material is important to genealogy, and those sources are frequently recorded on microfilm and microfiche. However, sometimes the quality of the images we get from those media leaves something to be desired. Still, there are things that can be done to make images clearer and help you decipher what’s in front of you.

What Can Go Wrong With Record Images 

Microforms are reproductions of documents, recorded in miniature on film or paper. Microfilm (which comes in reels) and microfiche (which comes in flat film sheets) are two common forms. The quality of a microform reproduction depends on the actions of the technician who created it.

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When a technician is creating microfilm or microfiche, he or she is taking photographs of the documents in the same way that pictures are taken with 35 mm cameras. Before digital photography, with autofocus and automatic exposure, the user of the camera had to focus the image and set the exposure manually. If the technician did not do this properly, then the resulting image was of poor quality.

Even if the technician set everything properly, you can still have a hard time reading the image because of the appearance of the original document. You may encounter records in which the two sides have bled through the paper, resulting in a dark or muddled image; or the original material was silked (an early preservation technique in which the document was sandwiched between material that acts as a support for fragile documents), creating a shiny appearance on the reproduction, among other things.

Making Unclear Images Easier to Read 

The best way to counter deficiencies in the film is to use the best-possible scanner available, preferably a digital high-resolution reader or scanner. The kind that you need will be computer-controlled rather than manual. The user is presented with an interface that allows him or her not only to advance and rewind the film but also to manipulate images, such as zooming in or inverting them from negative to positive. Too-dark images can be lightened, or faded images can be darkened, so that you can read them better.

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You can also control the contrast of the image to help make it appear more crisp. Some models will even allow you to insert boxes around certain sections of the image so that your adjustments will affect only a certain section if the rest of the document is legible. The image below is an “after” and “before” example of what a digital high-resolution scanner or reader is capable of doing, with the top image having been improved through manipulation of the brightness and contrast.

Before (below) and after (above) image of a historical document (provided by the NEHGS)

If you are at a library or archives and are having trouble getting a legible image, you should ask a reference librarian or archivist for assistance. They spend most of their time around the equipment and might know a few tips and tricks to get the best-possible image.

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Occasionally records have to be requested from an institution because it holds the only copy of the material and you are unable to visit, as in your case. In that situation, you are relying on the reference librarian or archivist to make the best-possible copy for you. Ask about the possibility of receiving the images as digital files rather than paper copies. Although it is more challenging, you might be able to manipulate a digital image using a photo-editing program on your computer to adjust the contrast, color and brightness to make the document easier to read.

Tips for Getting Around Other Image Deficiencies

Once you have the image and can make out all or most of the words, the next step is to read the document. Depending on the extent of your experience with historical documents, reading the content of the document may be a challenge. Fortunately, with a little experience it becomes easier to read and understand older or barely legible documents.

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The first thing you need is an understanding of the type of document you are looking at. Is it a will? Is it a deed? Is it a vital record? By understanding the type of record you are trying to read, you can get a sense of the words that you may encounter. For example, you would not expect to find the word “rood,” an older unit of measurement, in a birth record, but you might find it in a deed. Some types of documents, such as deeds, have boilerplate language that, with repeated exposure, become second nature to read.

Knowing the type of document you are looking at also allows you to decipher words based on context. In the snipped portion of the image below from the 1880 U.S. census, you might have some difficulty reading the last column for “Frank.” But if you know that the column asks about any sicknesses a person had, you might be able to easily decipher that he suffered from ulcerated bowels.

Image from the 1880 census (U.S. Census Bureau)

If you have a letter or deed, we suggest that you transcribe the document, leaving spaces for words you cannot read. If you have only an occasional word in each sentence, you can narrow down the part of speech that would make sense in that spot. You have also created a guide to the way the author wrote certain letters that you can refer back to as you work to decipher illegible words.

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Depending on the age of the document that you are trying to read, there are additional things to consider, such as the way that letters were formed in the past. The most common example of this is the long S. There are numerous resources available on the internet to help decipher illegible handwriting.

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Ancestry.com has a Wiki page of helpful tips that includes examples of different styles of handwriting. Moreover, if, after searching for additional tips and tricks, you are still unable to decipher the handwriting, you might find help by joining genealogical forums or Facebook groups and asking if anyone can help decipher the text.

There’s hope for your effort to learn more about Mary Ryman!


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Jason Amos, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.