Much of the best information about buildings and their people can be found in libraries, archives, and special collections.
Libraries collect books, newspapers, magazines, maps, and other materials. Both public and college/university libraries often collect information about the surrounding region and its history. These materials are either circulating (meaning that you can check them out and take them home with you) or non-circulating. Circulating materials are shelved in the open stacks, which means that you can browse through the shelves and select the books, etc., you want to check out. Non-circulating materials may be kept in the Reference section, which you can browse but can’t check out, or in Special Collections, which are usually closed stacks (that is, off-limits to everyone except the library staff).
If the library has a collection of materials with a specific geographic or subject-matter focus, that collection is referred to as an archive. Archives are usually separated from circulating materials, either in dedicated rooms within the library, or if large enough, in a separate building altogether. Often, the historical information that you’re looking for will be of the non-circulating, archival variety.
Archives are all a bit different, but they have a certain way of operating, and it’s helpful to know what to expect, before you go.
When you visit a library or archive for the first time, take a few minutes to introduce yourself to the staff, tell them about your project, and ask them if they have rules that you should be aware of. You may be required to leave all of your belongings in a locker, except for a pencil and a page or two of notes. You may be asked to sign in and provide a picture ID. If you think you might want to make copies or take pictures of anything you find, be sure to ask about their policies. Some archives don’t allow flash photography or or photos of certain items or any photography at all. Some archives will allow you to make your own copies, and others require that the staff make all copies, or just copies of certain materials. Whatever the rules are for that archive, plan on following them to the letter.
Now, what should you bring with you? You’ll need a pencil, paper, and some notes to remind you what you’re looking for. If you have a laptop computer, you can type your notes directly into that, but I find that even with my laptop, I still like to have paper and pencil handy.
• The archive will probably require you to take all notes in pencil, so that they can make sure you aren’t marking their materials. Even if they don’t require it, using a pencil around archival documents is just a sensible practice. I like to use a mechanical pencil, so I always show it to the archivist right away so they can see that it’s not a pen.
• You may also be required to take notes on colored paper, so the archivist can easily distinguish your notes from the materials you’ve been using, and ensure that you’re not stealing anything. I always bring at least 25 or 30 sheets of my own yellow 20-lb. paper, in case the archive doesn’t supply it. Again, it’s just good practice.
• You should be allowed to bring in a few sheets of prepared notes. The archivist on front desk duty may need to stamp your papers to indicate that they came in with you and didn’t come from the archive. If you have file folders of materials that you need to have access but can’t bring into the archive, they will generally provide a locker for you to store these as well as your purse, briefcase, coat, umbrella, etc.
Don’t take any of these precautions personally! Remember that most of the documents in an archive are not replaceable. The staff must take the highest precautions to ensure that the materials in their care are handled properly and not damaged.
To begin your research, search the library catalog for the subject in which you’re interested. The library catalog will list items in circulation as well as in special collections and archives. I find it helpful to make a list of titles, authors, and call numbers. If you can access the catalog online from home, that will save time at the library.
Some of the materials that you’re looking for (such as biographies or books about community, regional, or state history) might be in the open stacks as well as in the archive. If this is the case, by all means use the books in open stacks, which you can check out and review at your leisure.
Archives don’t list all of their materials on the library catalog. Collections of loose documents — such as correspondence, legal documents, business records, advertisements, photos, maps, and other paper ephemera — are often organized in file folders, which are stored in file boxes or (less often) filing cabinets. This organizational system probably includes a numbering scheme, which allows the materials to be listed in a finding aid, or inventory of the collection. Finding aids may be available online or only on paper. You may be able to search the finding aid, or the archivist may have to do that for you.
Just like with the library catalog, I use the finding aid to make a list of the items that I’m interested in reviewing. The archive may have a form that you’ll need to fill out in order to request these items. They may only allow you to review a certain number of boxes at one time. Be patient! I find it helps to plan my visit so that I’m not rushed or running up against the archive’s closing time.
When you get a box or folder to review, you may be asked to wear cotton gloves, which the archive will supply. If you have a phobia about wearing gloves that someone else has just worn, bring your own. If the archive requires you to wear their gloves, at least you can wear yours underneath.
Be sure to keep the items in each folder (and the folders in each box) in order as you found them. Carefully turn each item over, making sure that you don’t damage it. Old paper can be very fragile; that’s why it’s in an archive in the first place! If you do tear a page or find something out of order, tell the archivist right away. Don’t attempt to re-order the files yourself.
The library staff is familiar with their collections and can be very helpful. Don’t hesitate to tell them about your project when you first arrive, and ask them for assistance if you need it — the sooner, the better. They will probably direct you to resources that you never would have found on your own.
Finally, how do you find archives in the first place? You can search online, but a really good place to start is your local library. If the library has a dedicated reference librarian, she or he should be able to give you some suggestions. When you visit those places, ask them for more suggestions! I like to keep a list of archives as I discover them, with maps, directions, information about their policies and hours, and a brief list of what I’ve found there.