Saturday, September 13, 2008


Okay so my favorite Voltron fan of all time has done one hellacious job of trying to make amends for that time I got all pissed off at him. He just would not give up trying to prove that he was not the scummy asshole bastard Galran deathblack beastman I told the internet he was, and amazingly he more or less kind of succeeded. Before we parted ways on pretty much mutually respectful terms, he asked if I could give him tips on doing the ads collecting thing I do. That was pretty astonishing because he's only the second person I've known to express any interest in ads collecting. The first guy was Dr. Geektarded and boy did he run with it. Dr. G never asked me for help, though, so I never thought about what I would say to someone who wanted to spend hours searching through microfilms for toy robots ads besides GET AWAY FROM ME YOU CRAZY WEIRDO!

So thanks to the most stubbornly determined Voltron fan in the world it dawned on me that there may actually be other fans de los roboplasticos interested in looking through their local library's rapidly deteriorating and incredibly boring microfilm reels. So I thought I'd write an article for the VSTP with some pointers on how to be a crazy weirdo. This is the rough draft and if anyone has any questions, ask now. Otherwise the test will begin never because I don't expect anyone to really be interested in this boring crap anyways.

1. Find a library, duh

There is usually only one library in any given city that keeps microfilm rolls. In my experience it has always been the main library or as it is sometimes called, the central branch library. Microfilm archives in smaller cities tend to only contain newspapers from that city. Libraries in medium to large population centers will carry microfilm from other cities. For example, I know that the El Paso, Texas and Tucson, Arizona libraries carry copies of the Los Angeles Times dating back to 1984. Even if you live in bumfuck, South Dakota like me and your library doesn't have much by way of microfilm you may be able to request microfilm rolls from other libraries at around $8 a pop. It's called the inter-library loan program or somesuch. I've never done it because I require so many rolls that just searching one city would cost me $100 for the minimum number of microfilms I need just to get a decent number of robot ads.

Don't be discouraged if you're currently living in a small town thinking there couldn't possibly be much in the newspaper archives there and you can't afford $100 to rent microfilm because that cool new Star Wars game is coming out on Game Boy. The retail scene twenty years ago was much different than it is now and just because your town may not have had a Toys R Us or RoboDepot or other large retail chain doesn't mean you won't find something. Oftentimes the best material is from now extinct retailers or small regional stores that nobody outside the city has ever heard of.

2. Know your microfilm readers

Once you're at the library you may find that time limits are put on how long you can stay at a microfilm machine. Very rarely is there any sort of waiting list, though. The only people who use these resources are usually old guys that can't stay sitting for long periods before they have to get up and leave. Who are these people, why are they so old, why do they leave so fast and what are they looking for? Who knows? I'm just glad they leave so I don't get kicked off before I find that elusive ad for Gay helicopter. I've been at libraries where there are only two machines and I've stayed on one for hours without getting kicked off while the other machine gets used by multiple other mysterious old weirdos. I shouldn't goof on them because that'll be me in five years.

Different libraries have different microfilm readers. The models range from loud old clunky machines with crappy high glare glass screens to state of the art whisper quiet scanners with widescreen anti-glare displays. The usual setup has a machine hooked up to a printer for which they charge if you want a copy of what's on the screen. The printers are usually horrible and you'll waste a lot of money that way. The quality of printout depends on the condition of the microfilm and the settings of the machine, two things you may not have any control over. You can see an example of some good quality printouts at Geektarded. Microfilm copiers usually do a very bad job at reproducing greyscale but if the ad is composed of mostly lineart then printouts work fine.

I take a digital camera and a few packs of batteries so that I have more control over the image I capture. I'm satisfied with taking pictures at 1024x768 and anything higher is usually unnecessary unless I want a copy of a full page ad. I've heard that newer sexy machines have USB ports for directly downloading images but I've never seen one of those myself. Sometimes the only thing to do if the image isn't to your satisfaction is to ask for a different lens. The library help desks in charge of the microfilm readers always have multiple lenses for different magnifications and sometimes that's all you need.

3. Put aside some time

Your time is the most valuable resource of all. I know this because Rob Thomas said so at a Matchbox Twenty concert once. To get the minimum acceptable results in terms of robots ads, I allow for at least five hours straight of reviewing microfilm. Budgeting my time for this usually wreaks havoc with the rest of my life but hell, if it were easy everybody would be doing it. In order to make the most of your search you have to be dedicated enough to set aside at least a full afternoon. This is because each roll usually takes me one hour to search through, and each month of newspaper is comprised of at least two rolls depending on how many pages the paper has. I've seen monster rolls in some cities that only covered two weeks of papers but were larger than whole months from other cities. I really feel for the guy who worked at the library making microfilm for all 30 pages of the Sunday television guide so that twenty-five years later I could find out what time exactly Knight Rider aired in Rapid City, South Dakota back in '83.

4. Know when to look

I don't mean when as in what time of day, I mean what months and weeks to look for in the past to ensure you find what you're looking for. Typically the best months for toy ads in the early to mid eighties were during the holiday season. Then after about 1987 it started being more evenly spread throughout the year. For 1982 through 1986 I've found the period from the last week of October through mid-December usually contains the highest density of ads. Concentrating your efforts on those weeks will guarantee the highest yield of toy ads for that year. Ads can come from any time throughout the year, though, and it is not uncommon to see an occasional relevant-to-your-search ad that ran in September or earlier.

LaBelle's 29 Aug 1984
For fans of a specific franchise, the search parameters can be narrowed depending on when those toys were released. For example, GoBots hit the market in January of 1984, Transformers in May of '84 and Voltron in March of 1985. Knowing this kind of information can be helpful if a more thorough search is desired beyond just the holiday season. You don't have to be happy with just October through December and there's more out there if you're willing to look. The earliest Transformers ad I've found so far is from August of 1984. Hot damn I would love to find one from May. A little research beforehand can really pay off and save some time when you're sitting in that chair. Don't go looking for GoBots in 1982!

Knowledge of the geographic region a toyline started out in is also helpful. Diakron was a Toys R Us exclusive line in '83 and at the time TRU was mostly concentrated in the eastern half of the US. So if you live in Colorado where TRU didn't open until 1990, don't expect to find Diakron ads. Also, distribution was a major problem in the 80s so it helps to know for example that Matchbox first test marketed their Voltron toys in Detroit at five K-Mart stores. You could conclude that Voltron most likely hit the Midwest first that spring and then penetrated through to the east and west coasts eventually later. So newspapers in Michigan are theoretically more likely to have earlier Voltron ads than say, Alaskan ones. Know your robots history!

5. Have fun

Being a toy robots archaeologist is rewarding but it's also time consuming and a pain in the butt. I always have an MP3 player with me so I can listen to Information in the Form of Audio delivered over the Internet when I'm looking for ads and hating life. When I'm searching through rolls and rolls of microfilm for hours I do get tired and bored and that's why I don't have a complete ad collection of any given toyline throughout every year of its release (well except maybe for Zybots and other one year wonders). Ultimately this is supposed to be a hobby, not work, so I do have my limits and I stop when it's no fun anymore. Sure it would be great to have ads for every Transformer size class from every year they've made them but I'm not that big of a fan. I have limits and I have to balance my dedication to this ridiculous hobby with other more important things like playing video games on the toilet.

1 comment:

Mick said...

Is step 6 make out with the hottie librarian who looks like Tina Fey/Sarah Palin?


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