Planning Your Visit to an Archive or Library
Do your homework
Before you go to a library or archive be sure and start on step one of your research plan and read several books and articles on your topic so you have a good idea of the kinds of resources you want to find before you talk to a librarian or archivist. The role of these professionals is to connect you with their institution’s resources but not actually do the research for you or teach you about the topic. They have many other duties besides customer service so help them help you by being prepared and focused. You will get the best service.
Look at the archive’s web site and familiarize yourself with it and its catalog. Make sure to read any descriptions of their collections or relevant finding aids they have published on their website. You don’t want to visit an archive that has nothing for you! Take note of the archive’s hours and any rules or restrictions about using the collection. Some archives may not allow photography or photocopying. Or if part of the collection is offsite, such as at the Bancroft Library, you may need to order these items well before your visit.
Consider writing to the archivist about your project so that she can plan for your visit or refer you to a colleague with more knowledge in your subject area. Be as flexible as possible when stating when you want to visit, particularly if it is a small archive. Give the staff time to muster their forces – in other words, don’t say you are coming tomorrow if you can help it.
Talking to Librarians/Archivists
Be as specific as possible when asking an archivist or librarian for material. Do not ask for everything they might have on your topic for example on the 1906 Earthquake. Instead ask a more specific question such as whether they have information on a specific person who lived through the quake. Most libraries and archives do not have the staff or money to describe their collections in detail so be prepared to do your own searching through many boxes of material that MIGHT be related to your topic. Being specific is especially important if you want the library staff to make a copy of the material to send to you. If you are not specific about what you’re looking for, or what collection of material it might be in, they will unable to assist you. Bottom line, they will not search through boxes of manuscripts looking for your evidence.
Don’t be afraid to articulate your research problems (but keep it brief and specific). The archivist may offer a different perspective on your issue, or have an idea of where to look. Don’t forget to mention any prior research you’ve done or where you’ve looked already.
What to Bring on Your Research Visit
Each archive is different but these guidelines generally apply:
- Bring pencils – no pens
- Bring a simple notebook or pad of paper without pockets. I like to use a steno-pad. Be prepared to offer this up for inspection when you arrive and when you leave.
- Bring cash and plenty of change if you think you might need to make photocopies or print out copies of microfilm
- Bring your digital camera and an extra battery and memory card. I have had both fail on me! If you plan to use your phone to take pictures, bring your charging cable and its power adapter.
- Bring your laptop if you prefer to take notes that way, and its power supply.
- Be prepared to potentially leave all your stuff in a locker, except for your pencil and paper. Each library is different.
- Bring a sweater. Libraries and archives tend to be in old buildings and often have finicky ventilation systems. I find also that when I sit still, reading and note taking, I get cold.
- Bring a cup for water – you may not be allowed to bring in a bottle but a tiny cup will fit in your jacket pocket and sure beats slurping out of drinking fountains.
- Bring your lunch. You will burn a lot of calories thinking and you don’t want to waste your precious research time looking for a cafe.
Take Good Notes
Lastly, don’t forget to keep copious notes of where you found what. Write at the top of each page of written or typed notes the source you are using with the complete title and the call number. – Don’t forget to save often and above all, keep a copy of your notes saved separately from your first drafts. You don’t want to accidentally delete something during the writing process. If you can, take pictures of the resource’s title page, container record, or paging slip. If you’re not sure what to photograph, make sure you at least get the call number and the barcode assigned to that resource. Some archives require you to also put an identification tag in every photo you take. It seems like overkill but you definitely don’t want to have any mystery pictures that make you wonder, where did I find this? You also want to be able to find the resource again or refer to it to a colleague or librarian.
Thank everyone profusely
Lastly, be sure to thank the library staff members who have given you great service. A quick email after your visit is polite and also will provide the librarian with your contact information in case she thinks of something that will help you later. It is my practice as a librarian to keep these thank you emails, just in case I need to contact the researcher again. One time I contacted a researcher a year after we met because I FINALLY found what he was looking for.