The Basics: Using Archival and Research Libraries

by Anna Blanch on May 29, 2010

 I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Research Libraries and Archives over the last few years. I’ve done this not only because that’s where the research took me but also on enjoyable mysteries; fun rabbit holes. That may make me a little out of the ordinary. But it has also been a steep learning curve which has given me a raft of new skills – some of which i learned the hard and unproductive way. Goannatree is a scholar-blog and this is one of those posts where we can learn together. I’ve got more research trips coming over the course of this PhD – quite a few more and I still make rookie mistakes and forget things. Nonetheless, there is a process for getting to know a new library or archive.

1. Access

Check the library website for information about what you need to get a reader’s pass or card. This seems basic but i’ve heard from administrative staff at a couple of different libraries that this is the most common reason they reject an application. Don’t ask the staff to make an exception – read the website and do as it suggests and you will get access. Remember: Research Libraries want to give you access, they live to give you access; but they also need to protect their material – so do as they ask and you will get one of those cards with the terrible digital images of your lovely mug on it toot sweet.

Usually if you have a letter from the University Registrar (stamped – make sure it is stamped) that has your position or degree enrollment (it says you are a PhD student, lecturer, assistant professor etc) and also has your home address on it, as well as a passport or drivers licence this should be sufficient. This is what you will need for the British library and Cambridge University Libraries. For the Harry Ransome Center, National Library of Scotland, National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia a student card is sufficient. In other words check before you go – you may be able to apply before you arrive; if you can, DO IT! or at least try and make an appointment with those that process your application for access – it will save you time. And Time is Research people!

2. Lockers/Cloak Room
Be aware that almost all major Research Liobraries and Archives have rules about what you can take into the Reading Rooms. Many have lockers or cloak rooms to take care of laptop bags, handbags, coats etc. Keep a $1 or 1 pound coin on hand – this is often the deposit needed (though i’ve seen some that take 20p or 50c pieces too).

3. Work out what you need and take only what you really need
Prior Preparation saves serious time and stress. Take a bag by all means but also take a clear plastic bag (and a couple of ziploc bags) to put your laptop, cords, mobile/cell, pencils, sharpener, eraser, paper, readers card and change. Try not to take large amounts of material unrelated to the present research question into the reading room – that chapter you’ve been working on might be good fodder for the train ride but do you really need it in the room? It still might be helpful to have a one page outline of your project to remind yourself or to share with that reference librarians or to the other researchers you get chatting to in the coffee shop.

So what do you need to take?
 a) Paper
b) Pencils
 c) readers card
I’m putting together an upcoming post that will detail the essentials of my Archival Research Kit.

4. Pre-order from the catalogue; or at least Pre-search
 Once you have a readers card you should be able to order at least half a dozen items to be ready on your arrival to the library. You may not be able to do this prior to your first visit, but check anyway – it is possible that you can email a librarian and make a special request (this is good if you have a very limited time in a library and have more than 10 items to look at).

Even if you cannot preorder, you really really need to pre-search! In fact, you shouldn’t even plan a trip to a research library or archive unless you have pre-searched their catalogue to make sure that you really need to go. If there is only a couple of items, consider whether your resources are better spent somewhere else. Ask the library if they will copy the relevant section, find out if you can do an inter-library loan of the item, or search WORLDCAT or COPAC to see if you can obtain the resource from another source.

This post is part of the The Basics series which deals with general advice research and scholarship.

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image: Microsoft clip art


Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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