Alright – raise your hand if your first impulse is to start your legal research or any kind of research by first going to look for it on Google? Most everyone. Oh, a few of you use Google Scholar, or perhaps started with Westlaw and/or Lexis, good for you. That still means the majority of you still started with the computer and internet, if I do not miss my guess. While the internet has clearly made starting research much easier, every once in a great while there are still some old school methods that cannot be beat for finding information. Such a thing happened recently here at the Charlotte School of Law Library. One of our reference librarians, Betty Thomas, received a call from a gentleman in Georgia who had been referred to us by The Library of Congress. That is correct “THE” Library of Congress, the foremost repository of national information and archives in the country if not the world. It would seem that the Charlotte Law Library was one of only two libraries in the southeast that had the archival information that our particular patron was in need of.
Now, while I am very proud of our Law Library, it is not what one would think of in terms of being a repository of archival material. We have a large treatise collection, maintain statutory materials for all fifty states and additional United States territories, keep our physical legal reference materials up to date, etc.; however, the growth in the collection, as with most modern libraries, is with our digital databases. Yet, here was a researcher that had been directed toward us by The Library of Congress to aid him in his quest for information. If you have missed the key fact at this point let me make it clear that the information the patron was in need of was not on Google, much less the internet. I know some of you reading this are saying to yourselves, “But everything is on Google!” Oh – not so dear reader, not so. Nor was this information to be found in some dusty tome perched among our stacks, nor in our periodicals (some of which are weeded every six months), nor was it information held on a closed database or any kind of audio or video medium. No, this information was on a single tiny sheet of microfiche. OK, follow the hyperlink if you do not know what microfiche is, then come back this article. Got it? Good! See, the internet is a wonderful source of information.
Now some of you at this point are scratching your head and going huh? Some of you might even be saying, “But isn’t microfiche obsolete? Does anyone still use it? And if they do, why would you keep such an outdated method of storing information?” Ah -why indeed? Well, as it turns out, and as you may now have gathered everything is not on Google. In fact, mind bending amounts of information have still not been digitally transferred and archived. There are numerous initiatives in play working to rectify this issue; however, time, funding, and interest are just a few of the problems facing what is a monumental task that not one entity can surmount alone. And while virtual mountains of information are being digitally transferred everyday some things are still in a long queue to be converted. Plus microfiche is in many ways still a viable way to store information not only because it is affordable, but the film the documents are saved on have a very long shelf life. Digital media degrades or the technology that allows you to read it is rendered obsolete by rapid software/hardware advances in technology. Microfiche on the other hand, if properly stored, can last decades if not centuries. And while you cannot store microfiche on something as small as a flash drive, the amount of space microfiche cabinet storage takes up in a library is minimal. However, I digress, and as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now for the rest of the story.”
Our Georgia researcher is an amateur historian. His particular area of interest is the American Civil War. The information he was seeking had to do with United States War Department records in regards to grave stone marker numbers and the names of Confederate Soldiers interred at a cemetery that was once a United States Army POW camp in Ohio. Now, out of respect for our historian I am not going to go into the specifics of his research. However, he was kind enough to provide us with a link to an Ohio article that may shed light on what he is investigating. I have posted that link below. What is important to this article is that yes, we had the documents he was looking for on microfiche. And while I am a bit embarrassed to admit it, due to budget constraints we had only purchased one microfiche storage cabinet for the Law Library. Of course, the particular single sheet of microfiche that our researcher needed had never been filed away in that cabinet because that cabinet was full. Here is a note to any library directors reading this post, legacy memory is important. In this particular case I was the legacy memory because having been with the Law Library for five of its six years of existence I knew where the remainder of the microfiche collection was stored and mostly forgotten. Moments later after Betty and I dug through numerous boxes, we found the single tiny sheet of film that contained the documents our researcher needed. Score!
Our task did not end there. Betty and I had to reacquaint ourselves with the antiquated microfiche reader in the Law Library. That was the work of minutes and soon we had the documents on view to see. Indeed it was 54 pages of lists of names of Confederate Soldiers along with the name of their regiment, their rank, the marker number where they were buried, and the date of death. It was both a thrilling and sobering moment. Here were all these names of young men buried far from home, part of what was the most devastating conflict in American history. Betty spent the better part of the afternoon making copies of all 54 pages. Betty mailed the copies of the documents to our researcher and we wish him well in his endeavors.
The real silver lining in this adventure in obscure library media was that two of our law students who happened to be working for us this summer became very curious in the process. It provided Betty and me a teaching moment where we demonstrated why knowing about this type of technology could be valuable to them in their futures as practicing attorneys. For one thing, Betty and I explained that newspapers are still saved on microfiche as are numerous other documents. What if as an attorney you had a case that required finding out the name of a witness from a cold case, or you were doing research on real property that was in contention and the only historical evidence was on microfiche. We probably could have gone on with numerous examples where knowing about microfiche could be relevant.
So there you have it. Not everything is on Google, or the internet for that matter. And while microfiche might seem outmoded it is far from obsolete.
Special thanks to Betty Thomas who is a wonderful and dynamic librarian. Here is the link to the article: