Genealogy: Reading Microfilm

Learning how to read and use microfilm can be beneficial to your genealogical research.

In This Article:

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Let's Practice

At the repository, ask to see the microfilm catalog. You coded the surname Carlson as C-642; you want to find Charles Carlson who lived in North Dakota. The catalog shown in the next figure indicates that the 1920 North Dakota Soundex is micropublication M1580, and that the code C-642 is on rolls 8 and 9. Because you are searching for Charles Carlson, you will examine roll 8 because it includes code C-642 through the first name of Katherine. (If you were searching for Martin Carlson, you would examine roll 9. That roll starts with code C-642, first name of Lars, and continues through the rest of C-642 codes and on to the next numerical codes.)

Using the same example, find roll 8 of micropublication M1580 of the Soundex. Note that there are “title cards” at the beginning of each of the codes, so you know when the code on the film changes. Find C-642 and then start watching the alphabetized first names. You want Charles Carlson, so proceed to the first name of Charles. Remember that all the surnames sounding alike will be together; there could be a number of surnames coded as C-642 that show a Charles as a given name. But not all will be for Carlson. If you do not find Charles Carlson, don't give up yet. Was his full name Charles William Carlson? Because this is in strict alphabetical order by the given name, you have several alternatives: C. W., Chas., Charles W., Charles William, and even Chuck or another nickname.

First 10 rolls of North Dakota Soundex from the catalog.
First 10 rolls of North Dakota Soundex from the catalog.

What Will It Show?

There are four different census cards that appear in the various Soundex: the Family Card; the Continuation Card (when the family doesn't fit on one card); the Individual Card (for those who lived in a home in which the head of household bore a different surname); and the Institution Card. Certain items from the full listings were extracted and entered onto these cards to form this Soundex index. You will be particularly interested in the Family Cards and the Individual Cards. If your ancestor, Jonathan Carlson, was living with his grandfather Jackson Martensen, Jonathan would be listed on an Individual Card. That card would include the name of Jackson Martensen and the reference numbers of the Martensen household so that you could then obtain that listing.

Lineage Lessons

There is an easier way to get to the 1880 census listings. You can bypass the Soundex and find every name listed simply by going to the Family History Library's website at Click on “Search,” and then on “Census.” Select the 1880 United States census. Fill out their search form, and end by clicking “Search.” This will lead you to every person named in the 1880 census.

Tree Tips

The Family Cards and the Individual Cards for the 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses differ slightly.

The census lists the head of the household with his or her age, birthplace, and citizenship. This is followed by the city, street, and house number. Then those living in the same home are listed, along with their relationship to the head of household, age, birthplace, and whether they are citizens. But most important to you right now is the upper right-hand corner, where you will find Vol. [Volume], E.D. [Enumeration District] number, Sheet [Page] number, and Line. You particularly need the E.D. number and Sheet number to find the whole listing. Remember, the Soundex is only an index coded by sound of the surname; it does not contain everything that is available in the full listing. It is important to copy those references from the Family Card; you will need them to obtain the full listing on another set of microfilm.

A shortcut is online at the subscription-based where there is an index to the 1920 census for every home Use their search engine for easy access. Also at this site is the previously mentioned every-name index to the 1930 census, as well as various others.

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