How to use the library to research cold cases

A stack of old files yellowing in an archiveHow to use the library to research cold cases when you wish to help solve a cold case. That is a question I asked Jennifer Gibbons.

Jennifer is exploring the case of Susanne Bombardier and generously offered to share with my readers how she uses public libraries for this project.


Doing research on cold cases can be a daunting task. The researcher has to go through decades worth of materials and figure out what’s important and what isn’t. While many newspapers archives are online, not all of them have become digital. This is when you need the microfilm machine. I’ve used the microfilm machines in two local libraries: Pleasant Hill and San Francisco, both in California. If you’re not familiar with using microfilm machines, here’s some info to make it easier. To help provide examples, I am mentioning the cold case of Suzanne Bombardier, who was murdered in 1980. Her murder to this date has not been solved.

1: Check the library system’s website

I know this sounds like a no brainer, but sometimes people instantly think libraries have everything they need (microfilm machines, copiers, reading rooms) however, every library is different. Usually on the library branch list they list what they have and don’t have. Also check to see what time the library opens. As mentioned above, all libraries are different. Some are open every morning at ten, some open at noon, some are closed for several days. It’s good to become familiar with the library hours so you can plan your research time.

2: Call the Library Ahead of Time

Even though libraries’ websites are pretty up to date, it’s always a good idea to call ahead of time before you go in. The microfilm machines might not be working, then you’ve wasted gas and time coming over there to find out the machines are not working. When a machine goes out-of-order, it can take a couple of days or a week for a techie person to come and see what’s going on. Usually this is a good idea when a library has only one or two machines. If they have over three, it’s a good idea to call to make sure the machines are working, or if the library will be closing due to power failure or any other calamity.

3: Find Out What Kind of Payment Is Required

Some microfilm machines only take change. Others might need a copier card. Either on the website or on the phone, find out what’s needed. It’s good to have plenty of nickels and dimes handy for machines that take change. Libraries have limited coinage, so extra change makes it simple. Some libraries might give you a bypass key, where you don’t have to pay anything, while they hold on to your library card. After you’re done with the copies, pay them what you owe and you’ll get your card back. Dollar bills can be handy here, and if you owed change, it’s always good will to tell them to put it in their donations box.

If they need a copier card, again dollar bills can be helpful. Just remember that copier cards don’t make change, so if you put five dollars on a card, you won’t get it back. On the other hand, you can hang on to the card for the next time you do research. Remember to make sure the bills aren’t crumpled, torn or dirty. Crisp bills are your friends!

1: Ask for Help

So you are now prepared. You’ve arrived at the library, you have change or a copier card, you are ready to start researching. But you’re not sure where to start. This is when you ask for help. Usually people are hesitant to do this step because libraries can be short-handed or we still have that stereotypical image of a librarian yelling at someone that their book is overdue. Relax. Librarians are our friends. They will help you get a machine, then get you started; be it getting the microfilm in question, loading it on the machine, then making sure it works.

2: Be Patient

When a machine doesn’t work, it can be incredibly frustrating. This can happen more often because microfilm machines can be incredibly old. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure if they’re made anymore. Again, refer to number four. It might take a while for a librarian or a librarian’s aide to get the machines working because of the machine’s age. It’s super easy to lose your temper and yell “My God! Why is this taking so long? I need to use this information right now!” Please try and be patient. The library staff usually is working with limited resources and they’re doing the best they can with what they have. That’s why it’s good if you reference the part in number three to throw in change in the donation box.

3: Speed Up, Go Slow

All righty! The machine is loaded, you’re ready to start researching. Double check the dates you’re working with. Then speed as fast as you can towards the date. Don’t let it go too fast so you’re not sure what day you’re on. Then when you approach the day before the date you want, slow the machine down. This way it will be easier to get access to the needed information without having to go back several times. When you get to the dates, go as slow as possible. Scan articles to see if they match what you’re looking for.

4: You don’t have to look at all sections

You can speed up on some sections. Back in the old days, newspapers had special sections on certain days. I’m not sure if they still do this, but this was definitely done years ago. Here’s some helpful info to help you sort it out.

a. Sundays: You had your funnies of course, a book section, an editorial section, and lots and lots of advertisements. More during the holidays. Some papers run their religious section this day.

b. Mondays pretty thin, unless it was a busy news day.

c. Tuesdays again, pretty thin

d. Wednesdays usually this was recipe/food day, so you might see some vintage food pictures here. Also lots of grocery store advertisements, where steak is on sale for three dollars!

e. Thursdays more ads, mostly for weekend sales

f. Fridays lots of ads for weekend sales. Also the entertainment section is bigger, thanks to movie reviews and times. This can be fun to look at for a break and a laugh. For instance, when I research 1980, Can’t Beat the Music is referenced several times because people thought it was going to be a big hit. Let’s just say it wasn’t. Not by a longshot.

g. Saturdays Lots of sale ads. Sometimes an expanded letters to the editor section is in the paper as well.

5: Check For Common Themes In News Stories

While you are doing research on your case, you will want to skim other stories in the news sections for recurring/common stories. While doing research for June 1980, I noticed several trends: the 1980 election, the hostage crisis, and Proposition 13. Prop 13 won in 1978, meaning that schools and libraries lost revenue they usually received in taxes. Another service that was affected by Prop 13: the police force. Their budgets were slashed as well. That’s why ten days after Suzanne Bombardier was killed, the Antioch police went on a “blue flu” meaning all the police officers called in sick. A deal was settled on later. Try to mentally weed out what you think might have affected your case.

6: The Copies You Get Aren’t Going To Be Great

Microfilm are usually grainy black and white. No color, and usually they are blurry. Beforehand try to make sure it’s set to get the best picture possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten shadowy pictures or blurred text. Recycle the bad copies, and do the best you can with what you have.

7: Remember You Are Helping Someone

It can be pretty frustrating if the machine isn’t working, or you don’t have enough change, the copies are cruddy, or you cannot find anything new. Be kind to yourself and keep going. As Alice says on this website, you are providing a digital footprint for someone who otherwise wouldn’t have one. You are, as one person once told me, righting the bad karma, the injustice of what happened. There might not be an answer right away, but remember at least you tried. Nobody can fault anyone for trying to help right a wrong.


Jennifer Gibbons

Jennifer Gibbons

Jennifer Gibbons graduated from Mills College with a degree in English and a concentration in Young Adult Literature.

At Mills, Gibbons won the Marion Haworth prize for Young Adult/Children’s Literature. She has written for a variety of publications, from the San Francisco Chronicle to The Jonestown Report. Her love of books (and the Dewey decimal system) led her to work for the Contra Costa Library system for ten years. She is working on a novel and a book of essays, which would both be farther along if her cats, Ida B. and Opal Louise, weren’t such drama queens.