Research Strategies, Pt. 2: What to Expect at the Archive

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Drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937), published in The Zebra and the Wishing Fairy.

This post is a continuation of Research Strategies, Pt. 1: Archive Scanning.


For some of you, the Boston Summer Seminar will be your first experience conducting in-depth research at an archive or special collections library. Due to the unique nature of manuscript and rare print, photograph, and artifact collections, the experience of conducting research in an archive can be frustrating and intimidating to the novice. Below are some tips to help you get acclimated to the special collections environment.

Plan Ahead

Unlike a circulating public or college library, it is difficult (though not impossible!) to walk in off the street and have a successful research experience. Advance reconnaissance, sometimes including a telephone or email conversation with a staff member, before you set foot in the library can greatly enhance your visit. While not all of the BSS partners require a research appointment, it is best to connect with an on-site librarian or archivist ahead of time to make sure the materials you wish to consult are open for research and physically on-site. You can find more information about each partner, and tips for planning ahead, in our first research strategies post.

What to Bring

Because the security of our collections is important, archives and special collections libraries have strict policies about what personal belongings can and cannot be brought into the research area. Like when visiting a museum, bags and coats must be left outside, no food and drink may be consumed in the research area, and there are restrictions on how items, such as phones, laptops, and cameras, may be transported and used. Each BSS partner will have slightly different policies, but as a rule it is best to plan on only having access to your laptop or tablet for note-taking and camera or cell phone for non-flash research photography. All other personal items will need to be stored in a locker or other secure area while you are working with the collections. Your contact at the specific site will be able to provide more details.

Slow Research

When you step into the archives, consider downshifting to “slow research” gear. Arriving at an archive for the first time, you typically need to go through a registration and orientation process before you begin working with the collections. Staff want to ensure you know how to request collections properly and handle materials safely. Because most collections must be requested, rather than being available in the open stacks, there can be a delay between when you request materials and when they arrive at your table. Planning ahead can minimize delays but will not eliminate them. Once you have a box of papers or a rare print volume at your desk, working with fragile items and handwritten documents is much slower than flipping to the index of a printed work to find relevant content. You will need to move items slowly and handle them deliberately to ensure their survival for future generations of researchers. The library staff will guide you and correct hasty or rough handling that is risky for the items.

Adapt Your Study Habits

Reading rooms are quiet spaces, and if you are a social researcher who works best in conversation with others, you will need to adapt to this new environment. Consider bringing headphones, so you can stream podcasts or music through your laptop without disturbing other researchers. Communicate with your research partners via email or social media throughout the day to share exciting discoveries and keep yourself energized. If your research partners are at the same site, coordinate study breaks (see below). Switch between formats (print, manuscript, microfilm, visual materials) if you find your attention wandering or exhaustion setting in.

If you are someone who finds it difficult to focus in unfamiliar spaces, think about how you can place yourself in the room or what you might stream on your headphones to help yourself tune out the unfamiliar and tune in to your sources. And finally, if you are a scholar who thirsts for uninterrupted periods of solitary reading and thinking in the company of other quiet people, settle in and enjoy the luxury of time and space to do just that during your stay in Boston.

Eat, Drink, Move!

Finally, it’s important to practice self-care in order to be at your best through long days in the archive. Because you can’t have food and drink in the library, plan to take breaks throughout your research day. Whether you pack a lunch and a thermos of coffee or tea or ask the archive’s staff for tips on the best local cafes, consider a mid-morning break, a lunch break, and a walk mid-afternoon. Or get up once an hour to stretch your legs and walk around the block, visit the exhibition area, or browse the reference collection – something to get your body moving and let your mind digest what you are finding. Movement is also a great way to warm up, if you are someone apt to get chilled sitting in the air conditioned reading room. (We librarians universally recommend dressing in layers!)

Ultimately, each researcher who spends extensive time working with archival or special collections resources will find their own tricks of the trade. I hope these suggestions will get you thinking about where to find yours!


~ Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, MHS Liaison Librarian for the Boston Summer Seminar
acook@masshist.org

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