Jerry Varner is a microfilm technician in our Microfilm department in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In between sessions at camera and coffee breaks, we communicated over e-mail to talk about his thoughts on Microfilming and experiences at Backstage and, formerly, OCLC.
J: I’ve been at Backstage for 21 years; I started on March 26th, 2001.
A: That was back before the preservation unit joined with Backstage. Where did you work before?
J: Before that I worked as a manager of an Apartment complex in New Jersey for 14 years.
A: Tell me about what your role is at Backstage within the Microfilm department.
J: I microfilm old newspapers as well as new ones. I also specialize in filming big books on what we call the “monster cradle” for newspapers and books that are too big to film at other cameras. Years ago, I used to film on a camera that created microfiche, the contents of which tended to include a lot of stuff from WWII and The Sons of the American Revolution among other things.
A: What part of the process do you find the most rewarding?
J: I enjoy microfilming the old stuff most. I’ve filmed newspapers that span back into the 1700’s, 1800s, as well up to the present day. Topics and span have touched on the Revolution, Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI, WWII…
A: When you and other microfilming staff take your breaks, I’ve noticed you all tend to split up the daily newspaper and take turns reading different sections. From working with them to reading them in your downtime! What’s your preferred section of the newspaper to read over coffee?
J: When we do read newspapers, my favorite part is “Today in History.”
A: Why do you think microfilm is important? Why do you have such a passion for it?
J: I feel microfilm is important because we need to preserve our history and I feel confident it will last long after you and I are gone. You can even read it with a flashlight and a magnifier if you don’t have a machine.
A: Do you have thoughts about the future of microfilming and physical news media?
J: My thought is that I hope society continues producing and saving it for a long time. I feel like we are serving a great purpose for our children, grandchildren, and generations way beyond them.
A: I’m seeing a clear trend in what you’re passionate about – history! So, what do you do outside of work?
J: In my free time, I work on my genealogy. I’ve been tracing my family for years on both parents’ sides. Several of my family lines have been here since the 1600’s. It’s one thing learning about the history of this country but knowing your ancestors were there puts a different light on it. I can really go on and on talking about it; I recently found out that my ancestor Joras Ryerson’s farm was located where the World Trade Center was. They tell me the sign is still there for Dey Street, which was the road that ran through his farm. His wife, Anneken Shouten, had first married into the Dey family. After her first husband (Dirck Teunis Dey) died, Anneken and Joris Ryerson end up with the land.
I was filming a more recent newspaper last year and came across an interesting article. Turns out the U.S. Congress was awarding Merrill’s Marauders the congressional Gold Medal of Honor. This Army unit went on a secret mission that took them 1000 miles through the jungles of Burma during WWII behind Japanese lines. “Lawmakers on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Marauders, bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor to the famed Army unit.” You can read about it here. My Uncle Walter Buckley was in that unit. He died in the 1970’s. This medal will be at the Smithsonian. My Dad, John Varner Sr., was in the Marines during WWII in Okinawa and later in China at the end of the war and was present when several Japanese soldiers were beginning to surrender.
A: I think it’s so neat that you can find roots to your family and personal history in the materials you work with every day. And it’s clear to see that you really believe in preserving history, and how proud you are in your family’s place within it.
J: I’m proud of them and all my relatives who have served in all our major wars, keeping our families safe to enjoy the freedom that we as Americans are able to enjoy.