Why Is That Archivist Stealing My Pen? Libraries vs. Archives (Writers Doing Research)

20140129_124853The other day I had a behind-the-scenes tour of a large archives.  (Later I ate at a Kurdish restaurant – hence the pic.  I love food even more than I love research.)  We walked into one of the storage areas and it was like walking into the Hall of Prophecy at the Ministry of Magic.  Instead of swirling orbs, however, there were miles and miles of boxes containing all kinds of records, carefully organized and cataloged.  (There was also a fork lift that employees use to retrieve boxes – sadly, they wouldn’t let me drive it.  Sad for me, that is.  Not so sad for them.)

The tour got me reflecting on the differences between libraries and archives.  This might be second nature to some of you, but whenever I take my students to visit our local archives, most of them comment later that they had no idea that the archives even existed, much less what an archives was.  (And at least 2 or 3 each semester swear they are going to become archivists – score!)

Here’s what I outline for my students.  In short, libraries

  • provide access to materials you can find in other libraries and bookstores
  • permit you to check out most materials
  • shelve materials by call numbers (usually the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification System)
  • have open stacks, meaning you can walk among the books and other materials, retrieve materials yourself and browse

To find out what’s in a library, search for materials using their online catalogs (or OPACs, if you want to get your library nerd on – this stands for online public access catalog).

Archives, on the other hand

  • provide access to unique materials that relate directly to the organization that houses the archives.  A college archives might contain yearbooks, meeting minutes, copies of on-campus publications, photographs, recordings, etc.  A state archives will have all kinds of materials related to the state.
  • require materials to be handled in-house, usually in a space called a reading room and under supervision of a archives employees
  • have closed stacks, meaning that archives employees bring materials to you; you can’t go to the shelves yourself

In archives, you usually search for materials using online catalogs  and finding aids.  Finding aids are documents (online and/or in print) that describe the contents of specific collections.  Remember the boxes I mentioned above?  Finding aids help you learn what’s in those boxes.  You might learn in the archives catalog that the Julie K. Gilbert collection consists of three boxes.  When you consult the finding aid for the Julie K. Gilbert collection, the finding aid will tell you that box one contains notes from Stone’s Throw into the Deepbox two contains assorted personal papers and box three contains Bruce Springsteen memorabilia.  For example.  Depending on your research interests, you can request one, two or three boxes.

Archives also tend to have strict rules for entering the reading room. (Some libraries might still kick it old school with shushing librarians and no food, but my library is a social hub on campus.)   These rules are in place to protect the materials from damage or theft, not because archivists are power-hungry control freaks.  (At least not the ones I know.)

Common rules include:

  • No food or drink
  • Pencil and/or laptop but no pen
  • No coats, purses, computer bags, briefcases (most archives provide lockers or other secure storage areas)

There are often rules about photocopying, handling materials (only take one folder out of a box at times) and the amount of materials you can request at one time.  Fortunately archives employees are usually very friendly folks who are happy to walk new researchers through the process.  All you have to do is ask.

Later we’ll discuss how to figure out which archives has what you want (with real life examples!) and why writers would even want to use an archives in the first place.

Barrier: You need an excuse to leave the house and eat Kurdish food

Solution: Visit an archives!

There are additional differences between libraries and archives – what did I miss?

2 thoughts on “Why Is That Archivist Stealing My Pen? Libraries vs. Archives (Writers Doing Research)

  1. When I was in the Green Party archives in Germany, I got to see party leaders’ personal archives that included that leader’s personal notes to his aides, personal correspondence or even fan letters (yes, politicians can have fans too!)! Once I read a letter written to my all time favorite politician (B.O.)* about his weight loss and a copy of his reply to that! It was awesome even though it has nothing to do with my research, except for confirming that that politician was indeed really cool! 🙂

    Re the connection between archival research and food: sometimes, especially if you are in a foreign country, the archivist might invite you to lunch and you got to talk more about your research with probably the only other person who is enthusiastic about your topic 🙂

    *B.O.: Before Obama


    • How cool! There are many benefits to digitization (like sitting in my jammies while looking at archival documents) but there’s nothing like going to the archives themselves and being able to handle some of the documents. And lunch is always a huge plus! (On a personal note, LB was with me on this most recent trip and we thought of you as we ate.) Thanks for the comment!


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