Library Love: Archives - The Hidden Room of Research

If you haven’t read Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, it’s worth a try. There are witches, vampires, and demons spelled with an “a,” not to mention a heroine who spends days researching and consulting manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It got me thinking about rare materials and archives, and how truly foreign and inaccessible they seem. “Serious scholarship” is somehow embedded in the word “archives,” leaving them a mystery to most. Harkness perpetuates this illusion as her main character embodies the stereotype – the lone, unmarried professor, who prefers to spend her time in libraries rather than socialize or go on a date. 

Please. From now on, substitute the phrase “research in archives” to “looking at cool stuff.” Because that’s what it is.

Archives are very often connected to libraries, yet they are completely different animals.  Like the library is an elephant and the archives is a bowerbird. Libraries are digital and physical repositories of published information, in which multiple copies tend to be accessible. Archives deal with the extremely rare and the one-of-a-kind. They house things like the Gutenberg Bible, Charles Darwin’s field notebooks, and Mozart’s handwritten manuscripts. Archives specialize in collecting paper (correspondence, notes, clippings, etc.) and photographs, but anything imaginable-- from artifacts to ballet shoes-- can be found in collections around the world. Many archives have a focus, like GLBT history or folk music. You also find large institutional archives that collect a little bit of everything, and they tend to be associated with universities, government institutions, or museums

That may sound intimidating, but the reality is pretty humble.

Archives are organized by collection. Collections come together in a variety of fashions, but here’s a typical example: Famous Writer lived like a hoarder, saving everything in his office from postcards to rough drafts to restaurant receipts to exchanges with his editor. He dies and a family member packs everything up and donates it to X University. It is now called the Famous Writer collection, and is housed in 30 boxes in the Library Archives.  If an archivist had time to process the collection, there might be a guide to what’s in each box, called a finding aid, and some digital images of pieces in the collection. Or, there might just be a general description of the collection on the Archives website.

Here’s where you come in. You are interested in this writer for some reason – any reason at all. This is called a “legitimate research interest.” You find the collection by doing a Google search for the writer’s name and “archives.” You could also peruse the websites of local college libraries and find collections of interest.  Next, you will want to contact the curator in charge of the collection to arrange for a visit. There should be contact information for the curator along with the description of the collection on the website. Since many archives keep their materials off-site, it is necessary to discuss what you would like to see so the curator can pull the appropriate materials for you.  Finally, take a trip to the archives and research your heart out.

Is it really that easy? Yes. Archives typically have a space set aside for researchers like you, called a reading room, which is often the most beautiful space in the archives. Due to thieves and miscreants of the past, you probably won’t be able to take anything more than a pencil and notepad in with you, but a lot of archives allow digital cameras as well. Once you are situated, you can sift through Famous Writer’s stuff and discover his dirty secrets. When you publish your tell-all biography, please remember to cite your source.

Stephanie Bonjack

Column by Stephanie Bonjack

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on September 4, 2012 - 3:57pm

Archives are great, but accessibility is relative. Until archives can be properly digitized, they are largely inaccessible to persons with print disabilities. For someone with a print disability (blindness, dyslexia, etc.), gaining "access" to such materials involves finding somebody to go along with you and sit around for hours reading you random pieces from the archive, which is extremely cumbersome.

Stephanie Bonjack's picture
Stephanie Bonjack from Boulder, CO is reading Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith September 5, 2012 - 1:04pm

Zackery, I would say that situation exists with all print materials, not just those in archives.