Visiting archives and special collections

Maybe you have a piece of research that’s taking you to visit archives, special collections, or to a research library or historical society. While all these spaces are a little different from each other, they have some things in common.

All of these kinds collections focus not only on answering questions today, but making sure unique materials are preserved for the future. This means they have very different policies about how materials can be used and handled than a public library, school library, or academic library does. It is common for archives and special collections (or any other rare or unique materials) to have limits on how they’re used.

Common restrictions include having a staff member present and observing at all times, having a limited number of items on your work desk at once (often one book, manuscript box, or item at time), and requirements for handling items to avoid damage. These involve things like washing your hands thoroughly before handling materials, only using pencils on your worktable, or whether laptops or cameras can be used.

(Oh, and one factoid. You may think you need cotton gloves, but many collections no longer use them, at least for books and print items – they can cause damage in their own ways. Collections will let you know what they prefer.)

Libraries: Visiting archives and special collections (image of old fashioned bookshelves and old books)

1) Get An Overview

If you think you might like to visit a special collection, learn more about it. Chances are good there’s some information on a website that will give you an overview. This will often tell you important things like:

When are they open?

For special collections, this may only be weekdays during business hours, or maybe some Saturday hours. They may open late or close mid-afternoon (see #4 for why)

Do you need to make an appointment?

For many smaller organizations, you’ll need to make an appointment in advance so that staff are available.

Do you need to request items in advance?

Many archives have some items in off-site or otherwise less-accessible storage. They may need additional time to get these items ready for you. (More in #2, Plan Ahead)

What do you need to bring with you?

You may need to present a form of government identification to verify your identity, or be able to bring a camera or laptop, but different collections have different policies. Some collections may require additional documentation.

What are you not allowed to bring into the work space?

It’s common to ban large bags, pens, and any food or drink. There are usually storage options for coats, bags, and other necessary items, but you’ll want to plan ahead for them. These rules are usually to help protect items.

What might be really helpful?

Many collections now allow photography for personal use (usually this means no flashes or fancy equipment, and sometimes you’ll need to include a little card in the photo with the collection’s information.) This can be tremendously helpful if you’re working with a lot of material, but don’t want to transcribe it all while you’re there: you can take a good photo and work on it later, taking as much time as you want.

Check the collection’s policies carefully to figure out what’s okay. In some cases, photos may be okay some of the time, but not others.

Some examples of different sites

Want to see what that looks like in reality? Here are some different larger collections.

2) Plan Ahead

Sometimes you can visit without an appointment, but in many cases you’ll need to plan ahead in order to visit (or to access at least some materials.)

This is for two big reasons. The first is to make sure material is available that you’re interested in.

Some materials may be stored off-site for preservation reasons, and they may need a day or two to move the items to the reading space. Other materials may not be fully processed, and staff will have to check them for any issues before you can use them. Checking them involves looking for any preservation issues that would affect handling the items, and to check if there are confidential items in the collection (like student or medical information, which is sometimes the case in director’s files at a school)

The other big reason has to do with staffing, which I’ll talk about more in #4, Respect the Schedule.

Either way, you may want or need to figure out exactly what materials you’re interested in. This will help you plan your time, and make requests in advance as needed. In many cases, people who work in special collections will ask you a bit about your project. This is because they may know of additional resources that may not be obvious from the catalog or finding aids.

The other benefit of letting the staff know about your interests is that they can sometimes say “Oh, you don’t need to visit us for that, it’s digitised.” That means you can spend your visit focusing on other items or questions. (Sometimes, you may not need to make a visit in person at all!)

3) Read Information Carefully

If you need to schedule a visit in advance, there may be more information for you.

Larger organisations will probably have all of this available online (though it might be on multiple pages.)

We don’t have it online because we want to be able to talk about specifics of someone’s requests. Instead we send out a document which explains some of our less common policies (like needing to be escorted anywhere in the building), describes exactly what you can bring and can’t bring, and has some additional helpful information about food, parking, and transit options.

We encourage people to read this carefully, but not everyone does. That’s frustrating for us, frustrating for them, and no good for anyone. If they get here and are surprised we have really limited food options on campus, well, we tried our best to tell them!

4) Respect the Schedule

Do your best to arrive on time, and to wrap up your own work at the indicated closing time (or for any necessary break times).

As I mentioned above, most collections of unique materials require that a staff member be present at all times, for preservation and security reasons. The items need to be securely stored at other times, and it takes time to set all of that up, and to put it away at the end of the day.

In larger libraries and historical societies, there are staff members who focus on supervising the reading room. In smaller collections, one person is probably wearing quite a few hats.

In my library, researchers work at a large table in my office. This makes it awkward for someone else to supervise them, and it means I can’t schedule meetings, conference calls, or a number of other parts of my job while we have a researcher visiting. I can’t even take a bathroom break or duck into the stacks to get books for someone else’s question without a colleague covering for a couple of minutes!

So, we arrange our researcher visits so we have an hour in the morning to triage any new questions, and half an hour at the end so we can put things away and finish up other things. Some days I need every minute of that time.

It doesn’t help if a researcher runs late, either – I don’t want to get into the middle of something complicated if I’m going to have to stop for 15+ minutes to get them settled. And if they want to change their schedule, there’s a cascading challenge of meetings and plans I arranged around their original schedule, or other projects we’re working on.

Long story short, I really appreciate the researchers who clearly communicate their schedules, and who let us know if their plans change as soon as possible. I don’t want to force people into a rigid schedule (and sometimes things really do come up) but a little communication goes a long way to making the rest of my commitments work better.

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

A lot of archives and special collections policies may not make a lot of sense to you. But there’s probably a good reason they’re there.

If you have questions about a policy (especially if you have an accessibility need or something else like that), please ask about it as much in advance as you can.

Some policies are more flexible than others. (At least if you ask with more than a couple of days advance notice.) For example, we are strict about how materials are handled, and we can’t make exceptions for policies of our building (like all visitors being escorted).

But we can be more flexible with the schedule if our own calendars allow, especially if they give us a bit of warning. If someone’s tight on time, we may be able to digitize some items on request. We’re glad to help people refine their requests.

Reference questions: why I love being a librarian

I adore the puzzle of helping someone find information that makes their life better. Also great is the chance to help someone learn skills that mean they can do it themselves. If that’s the thing that’s helpful. (Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people just want the information, because they’re overwhelmed with other things in their life. It’s part of my job to figure that out, or figure out how to ask in a way that works out.)

Here’s how I got there.

Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom: Research help for esoteric and eclectic topics. Consulting, courses, resource blog. Jenett Silver : http://seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

I’ve had two conversations this week about how much I love my day job.

(One with my mother, who’s back in my area helping a friend, and one with my boss, because it was my annual review today).

The reasons I love my day job are also the reasons I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

My last library job, I didn’t get a lot of chances to answer reference questions – I was usually on shifts where we just didn’t get as many. I was also doing other library tasks that meant I got fewer through class liaison relationships or other interactions.

(Reference is the library term for “People ask us questions and we find sources that answer their question or get them information they need for their research.”)

I’d done a lot of it at my first library job, in a high school library. I helped people find books to read. I understood them balancing high-achieving academic expectations (and parents) and a need to do something else with their brains sometimes. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.)

I knew they had a lot riding on some projects and research – and more than that, they were great kids who cared about doing the project well, not just getting a good grade. And sometimes, there were kids who needed a place to spend some time that wasn’t with a teacher who’d grade them or a coach with expectations. Just librarians who’d say hi, and maybe suggest a book.

My current job reminded me how much I’d missed it. Immediately. 

I overlapped with my predecessor for a couple of weeks (she was retiring) so she could get me up to speed. The second day, she threw me an interesting and complicated research question to track down. It was a question about the sculptor of a particular famous bust (well, for values of famous: it was really well known in the 1800s, much less so now) and whether there were other copies, and what else we knew about it.

It was hard to figure out what to look for, about a topic I hadn’t done a lot with. Once I dug up some of the answers (which included asking her what info we already had about it, in filing cabinets I had only just learned about), I got to answer the question.

I had to figure out how to write the response, to hit the line between friendly and not too informal, to write like the skilled professional I am, but not be stuffy. A big part of being a reference librarian is figuring out how to present the information sometimes.

It took me a lot longer than it’d take me today.

For all that was overwhelming, I loved it. I knew then that this job was going to be hard work to learn all the subject material about the main topics we focus on that was new to me . But it was going to be so much fun.

I was right. 

I get to do things like that a lot. Pretty much every day, I get to answer a question from someone where I know it’s going to make their life better or mean something to them. I know how rare that is, too, so I really appreciate it.

A bunch of the questions I get are easier than that first one.

Do we have this book? Can we get this article? Can we help with this common question? What’re the recommended books about this topic we get all the time? (We have a list. And sometimes a handout.) Someone’s just discovered a famous person associated with our school, and has questions. (Enthusiastic fourth-graders – or high schoolers – are the best.)

Some questions are a little tedious to track down, a lot of searching through lists or being systematic about where we look for obscure things.

But some questions, we’re the only people who stand a chance of answering them. Or we’re the best chance. (There are other institutions that deal with our topic, but not that many, and most of them don’t have full-time reference help. At best, there’s someone doing it along with a couple of other roles.)

Those questions, I go home feeling great when I find an answer. Or even if I know we’ve looked everywhere and come up blank.

There are lots of other great reference librarians out there.

I know some of them. I know there’s a lot more.

But I’ve been around the Pagan community for a long time (and around the SF community, and around academics, and…) And I know that there aren’t enough. That people get frustrated or overwhelmed. Some people have had lousy experience with judgy library staff, or people who told them there was only one way to do research, and that way didn’t work for hem.

Then there’s the fact that the kinds of research skills that many of us learned in school don’t always work for things like religious or spiritual research – some tools work, but others need some adjustment or people need some additional ways to apply them or evaluate what they find.

Frankly, many of the things we learned about research in school don’t always work for medical or legal or business or internet privacy and security information, either, but that’s a whole other post. Or series of posts.

Not everyone’s got a great librarian handy where they live. (Or maybe you do, but you can’t always get to the library. Or you’ve got questions about topics you don’t want to bring up at your public library, for various reasons.)

I want to give you options. 

I love what I do. I love finding information for people. And not just finding information, but figuring out which sources are more available, or better for a particular goal. I think every bit of information is giving people that much more choice, that much more freedom. It’s not my job to tell you what to do. It’s my job to help you figure out the possibilities.

And that’s why I started Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom. Reference help for esoteric and eclectic topics. It’s up to you whether that’s some Pagan or magical technique or concept or historical tidbit, or something for a fiction book you’re writing, or trying to figure out the best way to do research on a topic you want to learn about.

If I and my skills can help, I’d love the chance.