Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday's Tip - Special Collections Research

Note: As a professional researcher, I spend quite a bit of time in archives and special collections. I wrote the following piece for another blog, but decided to re-post here for Tuesday's Tip.

(Originally published 2/14/11)

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a special collections department with someone who had never been before. As I was busy signing in and filling out call slips, it occurred to me that a first-timer might be overwhelmed by how different this type of research environment is, especially compared to a public or college library.

With that in mind, I drafted a list of tips that could help a budding researcher prepare for his or her first visit to the special collections. 

Go to the organization's website and review the policies for researchers.

You may find that you'll need to register as a patron, show identification, or check in with the librarian (or archivist) on duty upon your arrival.  In some situations, you may have to pay a fee to use the collections. And services, such as photocopying, may or may not be provided. It's much better to be prepared for these possibilities ahead of time.  (Of course, if you cannot find the policies online, you'll want to call the department directly.)

Be prepared to deposit your belongings in a locker.

Those who are accustomed to settling in for long hours at the library with an over-sized backpack and a travel mug of coffee* may be surprised by the restrictions in place at an archives or special collections department. Bags may be subject to search (or prohibited) and drinks are rarely allowed. You may want to save yourself the hassle by leaving food, beverages*, and large bags at home.  Staff may direct you to place other forbidden items, such as cell phones or portfolios, in a locker.

*If necessary, you can always make an emergency Starbucks run after you leave.  However, if your research topic is engaging enough, you might be able to bypass the caffeine fix altogether!

Bring pencils, rather than pens.

It is very likely that only pencils will be allowed in the reading room, so sharpen a couple of trusty yellow #2's before heading out to do your research. You may prefer pens, but this is a very small sacrifice for the sake of research. (Besides, you don't want to be responsible for leaving a permanent inky blemish on a piece of history anyway.)

Do not feel persecuted if you find yourself under the scrutinizing eye of staff.

Staff members are looking out for the safety and security of irreplaceable collections. These individuals ensure that the documents are handled properly and that nothing inadvertently gets mixed in with your own papers.  (And, yes, they are monitoring all of the researchers, not just you.)

These are just a few of the things to consider before embarking on a research trip.  There are probably countless other guidelines and rules of thumb for new archival researchers, but this is a solid starting point. Just be prepared, go with the flow, and enjoy the fact that you are accessing amazing materials that most people will never see.

Best of luck!