Librarians, archivists, and access to archives

archivesIf we all are to take Sister Agnes’s advice and consult manuscript archival material, we all must rely on the goodwill and advice of librarians and archivists.  I have never run into any problems getting access to the sources I wanted to see, since my research has been in U.S. and Canadian libraries and archives, some public but mostly private, reasonably well-funded and staffed by professionals.  Other, less affluent countries can’t offer scholars the same access and professionalism–for example, the chair of my department tells stories of research in Venezuela, where the archives he works in may be randomly closed because of a saint’s feast day, other religious festivals that may close the archives for weeks on end, or simply because they don’t have the money to turn the lights on.  I have heard similar stories about research in provincial Russian archives from other friends.

I’ve been fortunate, in that most of the librarians, archivists, and curators who have assisted me have been really interested in my research and eager to share their particular knowledge with me–their expertise has unquestionably enriched my research.  But, I have heard other people’s stories–and they have told stories about archivists who see themselves as gatekeepers of the archives rather than ambassadors between primary sources and researchers.  For example–Notorious, Ph.D. tells a story of an archivist who maybe–maybe–is coming to see her as a serious scholar because of her persistence over the past decade, but for much of that decade, he wasn’t especially friendly or helpful to her.

The worst story about archival gatekeeping I’ve ever heard has nothing to do with lack of resources, but rather, with the fact that a quirky personality was permitted to assume too much authority over records owned by a major research library.  In the 1990s, a graduate student I knew went to a large city in New England over her spring break to consult a library at a university that the Boston Globe used to call World’s Greatest University.  She was writing a dissertation about gender and masculinity in the U.S. Progressive Era, and wanted to consult the papers of a Very Famous Former U.S. President at this library at WGU.  She had contacted them in advance of her trip to ensure that the papers would be available to her, and they assured her that yes, she could come up to WGU any time to consult those papers.  When she arrived and announced herself, there seemed to be a lot of shuffling around and delays in getting the documents and volumes she had ordered.  Finally, one of the librarians took her aside and said, “we’re terribly sorry, but we have a colleague who takes a strong interest in Very Famous Former U.S. President, and he likes to ‘interview’ all of the researchers who want to consult his papers.  But, he’s not here today–he’s on sick leave and we don’t know when he’ll be back–and unfortunately, he has his own system for organizing the papers and we don’t know where he has put them.  So, you’ll have to come back when he can help you.” 

Research trip over!  My fear is that even if Mr. Quirky had been there, the graduate student may not have passed his “interview” if she didn’t demonstrate the requisite level of hero worship of Very Famous Former U.S. President Mr. Quirky might require of researchers to whom he grants a full audience with the archival resources.  This is something that historians of gender and sexuality have to be especially concerned about–because of course, there are a lot of Very Famous Former U.S. Presidents whose biographies have been revised lately because of revelations about their sex lives, and these revisions have not been received graciously by all.

What are your experiences in the archives?  Have you ever been denied access to papers because of suspicion about the nature of your research?

0 thoughts on “Librarians, archivists, and access to archives

  1. Before I say anything, I will bow in gratitude to all the librarians and archivists who have helped me over the years. I’ve been very lucky. I have worked in many UK record offices, which are very professional. It does take a while for them to realize that (a) you are not another American genealogist and (b) you can be trusted, but if you’re there for a while, they do. I do gather that if you work on modern or (even worse) living writers, you may have challenges from them or the estate depending on how they think your interpretation will go. Since everything I work on is at least 300 years old, it’s not such a big deal!

    My only adventures have been getting into records that were not held in formal record office/archive type places. So a church spent a long time not wanting me to microfilm a parish register because they didn’t know that two copies existed, and I didn’t want to take one from their storage system, but film one that was in the record office. In that case the Sir Bigwig — a descendant of the family who had owned the land in my period — was helpful; I also volunteered to give a talk in the village. When I sent the parish a ocpy of my book, the lady I corresponded with did not think Sir Bigwig would have liked the way his family came out!

    Other problems are structural. On one island where I worked, a set of key records is on microfilm at the central library. When I went to consult them, there was one microfilm reader in the library, and you could sign up for 2 hours a day. I don’t think that’s unfair, really — just a pain when you are on a short research trip. Another time (another island) I had to leave the library early because of riots in the town where the archives were.

    And I did have to revise my caption for a portrait I used as an illustration in order to get permission.

    I did have a colleague who worked in Poland, who said that vodka was very helpful in facilitating access to archives.


  2. Working in archives in southern Europe is full of quirkiness. I hear than northern Europe had beautifully-organized modern libraries (the PRO in London sounds particularly easy & sane), but in southern Europe, one finds innumerable saints’ feast day closing (regional! not national! don’t expect them to be the same from place to place!), access problems, disorganization, and arbitrariness. This is not true of all archives, of course, but many, especially regional ones. The archivist of one library I used simply wouldn’t allow scholars to see some of the holdings, and since they weren’t really catalogued, one wouldn’t even know what one was missing. And forget xeroxing, let alone a digital camera! Forget heat and electrical plugs! And naturally it can be much harder if Determined Scholar is a woman; in an attempt to gain access to a difficult archive in Spain, the guards referred to me (an assistant professor)with great disdain as “esa chica” (this girl). That said, in most of these cases, once one learns the ropes and makes sufficient appearances that one is deemed “serious”, it is possible to see what one wishes. Though again, one notoriously despotic archivist wouldn’t even let me look at the card catalogue (yes, it was organized by card catalogue, BY SUBJECT, not author title or year) of one whole collection because I’d initially said I was interested in a different collection. He actually yelled at me, something like, You can’t look at that! And there are some places where bribery (usually in the form of a nice bottle of brandy) is the best path to access.


  3. My own research has been in the PRO and British Library, so absolutely smooth sailing. (The English can do archives!) My advisor did have stories of running into territorial archivists/researchers who didn’t believe Americans could quite *appreciate* the nuances of the British records, and of having students’ views of their own research narrowed incredibly by archivists, but I don’t think that’s as prevalent any more.

    A friend of mine who worked in Russia, however, had to bring her own toilet paper to the archives, and would get yelled if she turned on the lights, because she’d use up the archive’s allotment of electricity for the month. (Cloudy days were a problem.) Also, I heard another story of someone working in a Russian archive who had to take the bus out to the middle of the countryside and ended up chased from the bus stop to the archive by a pack of wild dogs!

    Another friend has the same story as anon about not being able to look at the card catalog in a Spanish archive. And a prof from Italy told us about Italian archives where there are shelves crammed full of 16th-18th c. documents that haven’t been touched in generations and no one can use them, because no one knows what they are. (I have to say, I was grateful to work in England!)


  4. I haven’t had any problems with restricted access to materials either in the UK or in the third world country where I do some research. But, like Susan, I have had experiences where archives in this third world country have been closed for several days for random things: water shut off, etc., plus the constant concern of violence in this particular country. Neither of the major archives I use in this country are in great/safe areas of town. But once I’m in, I’ve had no problems. But I think that’s also because my topic itself doesn’t raise concern. I know people who’ve had problems in London when they’ve asked about records dealing with homosexuality and gender, to say nothing of challenges in non-Western countries. Antoinette Burton recently edited a volume called Archive Stories in which Durba Ghosh talked about the difficulties she had researching gender and miscegenation in British India.

    Also, my colleagues who study Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have all kinds of difficulties. Some can’t even use laptops in certain archives, others have to “bribe” with vodka. Non-native speakers often have access to fewer documents than natives; an informal policy, to be sure. One colleague, a citizen of the country of research, has spent months battling archivists over recently declassified archives. It puts flushing the toilet with a bucket of water in perspective; at least I could look at the documents I needed.


  5. I’ve never had difficulty with archivists keeping material from me (so far as I know), but I did notice this — if you dress nicer, they treat you better. I recall doing research in a mid-size New England city in a prestigious museum/library and when I wore a polo shirt and nice jeans (it wasn’t sloppy, really), the librarians wouldn’t give me time of day. They took their sweet time helping me, gave me curt answers to questions, and were generally unfriendly. When I wore a jacket, Oxford shirt, and pressed pants, they were all over me, asking if they could help, making suggestions, quickly getting my requests. I learned pretty fast — look professional, get treated professional.


  6. In graduate school, I was working for a guy who was writing a biography of a prominent NY political figure, and the first job he gave me was to run down footnotes in two volumes about this figure published by Professor X. I went to the Municipal Archives, got the boxes and began to work. Sometimes when I got the right box the folder was missing; sometimes the folder was there, but the document was missing. When I finally decided I had had enough I talked to the archivist and discovered that back in the 1970s, Professor X — because, I suppose it was a burden to come to the archive itself, had been permitted to take the collection to his house. In Archive World, you archive evidence collected independently so that other researchers can access it and check your finding; in Bizarro Archive World, you remove evidence from the archive so your account remains definitive.


  7. There was recently a thread on H-Disability about the special issues (and frankly, confusion and fear) associated with trying to access American archives involving medical records, even for the 19c. and earlier. In brief, because the HIPAA medical privacy act is retroactive, some archives are reading it to cover all medical records, very broadly defined. (And that definition gets pretty broad.) A firm policy is at least consistent; but imagine if the policy shifts with each change of director, or at the discretion of the desk staff…. frustrating.

    My favorite experience was looking at local history society records in a tiny town library in rural North Carolina. I drove across several county lines, and planned to spend the day. The librarian was fine with that, but informed me that I’d be locked in over her lunch hour, 12-2, unless I left by noon. I chose the lock-in, and found some great stuff by moving some cardboard displays to open the bottom drawer of a file cabinet–I might not have been so bold under her watchful eye.


  8. The first two years of my doctoral program, I curated a collection in the Special Collections of my university. About 30+ boxes, the complete business records of an American mosaic firm. (I’m still not sure how that happened, what with me being in an English Department.) The original idea was to do a small exhibit, write up a finding guide, sort and describe the collection. What I found in those files demanded more attention, really, and by the time I was through with the fellowship, we had done two exhibits (one of which was a major deal in a full-sized art gallery), two entries in the American National Biography, a bus tour of the city, hosted a lecture series, and had come up with an online exhibit.

    Since then, I have made a point of using archival material in my research and to introducing my students to archival material. When working w/ WWII vets’ writings, I explored a massive collection of surveys housed at the Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks.

    Working in Yale’s special collections a few summers ago was an absolute treat. Get this. I filled out the little slip of paper requesting to see a certain box, but I put down the wrong number. They promptly brought back a box full of the personal papers of American poet Marianne Moore! That was a mistake?! Imagine how good the research gets when you write down the correct call number!



  9. Since my field doesn’t know the word archive unless it’s digital, my experience is with military equipment. In our post, the guy responsible for dispensing cloths, weapons, ammunition and the like was not the gatekeeper he also horded his dispensables. When you were close to his place, he would shout: “I don’t have it.”

    Gatekeepers are all over.


  10. There is a big debate going on here at the moment over the government’s push to digitise collections in a major national research library. The government says it wants to make the material more accessible to the general public, but the archivists and a number of academics fear this will mean investing the resources in the most ‘popular’ material while other more difficult or controversial stuff gets buried and becomes less accessible to scholars (moved to offsite storage etc.).

    I have used this library and there is definitely a difference in attitude from the staff (more helpful and interested) when they realise you are a scholar rather than a member of the general public digging up family history. I guess I can understand that they would become frustrated at people coming in with no idea of what they’re looking for, how to find it, or how to treat fragile materials, but at the same time I am uncomfortable with their assumption of ‘ownership’ because it feels rather elitist to me.


  11. I’ve worked in a lot of archives (in fact, I’m working in several this month). My favorite is in an old Portuguese prison cell. No electricity so they let me take things outside to photograph (no photocopier in the town). Unfortunately, the documents are housed against the walls and are getting wet and disintegrating (and are slowly disappearing from the archives as they are sold off). As for gate-keeping, yeah there is a lot of that! I’ve been particularly annoyed with the PRO – it’s wonderful for letting you take all the photos you want but their cataloging is TERRIBLE. And when I tried to get help, the reference folks dismissed me with a “oh, you can find that in the parliamentary papers”. You know what? I’ve looked and it ain’t there either! I had them correct several files while I was there. My friend who works in Turkish archives said they are TERRIBLE for gate-keeping.


  12. oh and I should acknowledge that I live with an archivist (who is perpetually annoyed by A. Burton’s book title – archive is always plural. The book should be “Archives Stories” not “Archive Stories”. So I tend to be on my best behavior in getting archivists to help me.


  13. Worst experience in an archive: back when I was professional researcher, working with a veteran local historian in a small town whose nearby historical sites had been bombed out by the Navy during ordnance tests. Our mistake was telling her we were working for the federal government. We were actually working for the Army, trying to figure out whether environmental damage had been done so they could clean it up; she thought we were working for the Navy and were trying to cover up said environmental damage. It wasn’t pretty.

    Best experience in an archive: my school library, because I’m lucky enough to play a weekly poker game with one of the interlibrary loan librarians — which gives me a powerful and experienced ally when trying to get manuscript stuff from libraries without visiting there.


  14. re: dressing professionally: I always make sure (again, as a woman working in southern Europe) that I dress as professionally as possible. When I showed up to work in the Vatican archive, I made sure I had a (pants) suit on just so I could look as serious as possible. (And take my advice ya’ll – don’t try to show up at the Vatican wearing bare shoulders or showing your knees!)


  15. Thanks for sharing all of your experiences–lots of good advice therein, too. (And yes, working in Catholic archives requires proper dress–depending where you are, you don’t need to be particularly formal, but following the dress code for touring the local cathedral might be a good clue as to what might be appropriate. I think for the Vatican archive I might break out a suit too, like anon did! Although quite daring to go for a pants suit, I think…)

    Tenured Radical’s and Jeremy’s experiences are similar, I think, in that working in smaller archives where one may be able to get to know the archivist or librarian might lead to special–or even extraordinary and ethically problematic–access to the sources. I’ve never had that experience–perhaps because I’ve never sought it?–but I am familiar with small-town archives that are consulted more by attorneys and real estate agents than historians (who clearly aren’t interested in the 17th C records I was looking at, and are all about recent land records.) I remember consulting some small town records after having worked in the state library under constant surveilance, with the white gloves required and everything, and then going down the road to this little records office where I think I could have balanced a cup of coffee on one side of the records book and a lighted cigarette in an ashtray on the other, and no one would have complained.

    I guess the instinct I’ve had, reinforced by all of your comments, is that “all archives is local,” and you have to be a sensitive amateur anthropologist to sniff out what’s called for and what’s verboten in order to get along with your archival “tribe” of the day, week, month, or year. Dressing to fit in helps a lot, as does speaking the local language reasonably well (something that–amazingly–hasn’t come up yet!!)

    Anyhoo–carry on. I’m on the road today but I’ll be checking in later this afternoon.


  16. I’ll second Penny’s message about HIPPA — it really has made things more difficult.

    I’ve also encountered problems with a set of records at two Greatest Universities in the World on the east coast — there is a well-known doc who has made his career off these records, won’t let anyone else look at them without his permission. Didn’t like my research questions so said “no way.” So, I have to wait until this guy is gone to look at them.


  17. I only wore a pants suit because the skirt that went with the suit hit my knees and I was worried about it showing too much leg!


  18. In my research in southern Africa, the national archives were a model of organization and efficiency, and the archivists repeatedly helped me and others find and use relevant materials. They are wonderful, working in poor conditions: the reading rooms and storage are on the lower floors of a multi-story apartment and office building with chronic plumbing problems, so imagine the water seepage and dampness … They’ve been trying for years to relocate, but there are many obstacles.

    But regarding some of the comments above about archivists being less than hospitable to non-scholar researchers, this archive had the opposite problem. An ongoing issue is the lack of any other good library facility in the capital, so that many books which are held in the archives are not readily available elsewhere in the city. The result is that many university and even secondary school students use the archives as a study center, reading books they have been assigned, and taking up all of the very limited seats in the reading rooms. I sometimes felt the staff was a bit too accommodating of the students, who really were not doing archival research. On the other hand, perhaps the students felt welcome and were getting accustomed to the archives, an advantage for budding historians.


  19. Historiann in a suit with a lit ciggie on the research table, while gray flanneled assistant DAs feverishly work the files at adjacent tables to beef up subpoenas has a very noirish feel. It would have to be filmed in Nineteen Forties black and white, with the late afternoon LA sun slanting in onto the walls through big fat velour blinds.

    I actually know somebody to whom the public works archivist amiably brought a cup of coffee at the city archives. When she set it on the battered old table, ze said: whoah, you might make a coffee ring, and ze picked it up and put it back down on an l8th c. estate inventory. At least I think this is not a tale that has grown ever more apocryphal with the many tellings, mostly by me. Most of my own archival experiences have been positive, with some really special privileges conferred upon establishing credibility. I think following the local tribal mores is probably the best way to do the latter.


  20. I am shocked — SHOCKED!! — by TR’s story.

    My experience with archives has been 99 percent positive. There was only once that I wrote ahead to the archivist about my pending visit, was told all was a-okay, and then arrived to find a snippy desk-clerk who told me that I wasn’t welcome as the archives were closed for refiling. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with the archivist who I had previously e-mailed who opened the archive for me.

    Regions seems important. Many of my friends in grad school had huge problems getting into Catholic archives in the East. My experiences with the Catholic archives in the Southwest, though, could not have been easier (even if their files were totally out of order). But I was also not investigating anything particularly salacious, either.


  21. I’ll second Eduardo’s observations about attire. I’ve not gone so far as to wear a bow tie to the archives, but I hear it helps.

    I’ve worked with several small-college archives over the years (looking at the colleges’ own historical materials). These places generally have great staff, and they have always been interested, maybe even flattered, that someone is looking at their own institution as a subject. I learned, though, that many of these smaller places face a particular dilemma. When Very Important Person graciously decides to deposit her papers in Small College Archives, the lion’s share of the staffing resources tend to go toward the proper organization, maintenance, and exposition of said person’s life and works. This comes at the expense of the maintenance and preservation of the institution’s own historical sources, which are often quite rich and deep. On more than one occasion I helped them (re)discover something in their own collections that they were unaware existed.

    The larger, better funded, better known places are undeniably important, but I’ve come to appreciate the vital service that smaller archives and historical societies provide, particularly in providing access to people from the past whose stories would otherwise have been lost.


  22. Knitting Clio, have you thought about sending a mole to that collection — a colleague from another university with different research questions who could go in and discreetly copy the material you need?


  23. Sadly, I’ve had a similar experience to Tenured Radical, at two different State Historical Societies. A previous researcher (who was not an academic and did not have academic training) wrote a book about the daughter of my subject. In attempting to cross-check her footnotes, I found that many primary sources were not only ridiculously misrepresented, but some others were also missing! According to the archivists I’ve talked to about this, they speculate she removed some items that contradicted her thesis, or took items she wanted to keep. I was alerted to this at SHS #1, where the archivist was unable to prove the theft, so her only solution was to put the collection on lockdown and personally restrict access to it. SHS #2 is in denial, and when I brought this to their attention, they shrugged their shoulders, saying they couldn’t do anything about it. It’s pretty tough to prove these things, and many SHS’s are so severely understaffed that they can’t always keep tabs on researchers and/or collections without limiting access to everyone. My additional frustration is that at SHS #2, they routinely “loan” the collection to an instructor across the state for their personal use in the classroom–it is a moderately-sized but widely diverse collection with C19 personal journals, letters, photos, scrapbooks, and the like, and it’s routinely absent from the main SHS branch while it’s across state being pawed through by students who usually misfile the folders and get individual items out of order. Access is good (& so is learning), but I’d like to see that SHS balance access with protecting the collection.


  24. I once requested photocopies of 19th c. documents and was denied. I accepted that, the female workers at the archives did not accept the ruling. They snuck the documents out of the archives and photocopied them in town. And then presented me with the copies.

    The one point that I’ve noticed (and all other female researchers I know have faced this problem) is that in the archives I work in, it is ALL about gender. Women can’t get anything or anything done. Men, no problem. For women the cost of using a digital camera is 5x the cost of (this is not an exaggeration) one photocopy (which is usually done badly and is accompanied by much aggrevation to get it); for men, nothing, no cost, “do you need a tripod to take that picture?” I’ve worked in this archive in 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008 and every damn time, men can have anything and women cannot. And when all the men leave, the female employees do their best to help but can’t always help. I’m ready to switch research locations because it is so frustrating.


  25. I’ll take this opportunity in this discussion to tell you about last weekend’s “Women in the Archives,” a symposium in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England. See the symposium program at

    This was a great conference, and that’s not only because I was invited to be a speaker. I learned MUCH more about how archivists think and what problems they face, even within their own institutions. I also learned how much great work is occurring in recovering women’s lives.

    Literary critics, literary historians, cultural and social historians, writers and playwrights, librarians and archivists gathered together to discuss the following:

    * What are the questions, issues, challenges, and conflicts inherent in locating, accessing, researching, recovering, editing, teaching, and theorizing archival materials?
    * What is at stake in archiving and curating these traces of women’s lives?
    * What do such practices allow? What do they obscure?
    * How do scholars and archivists locate women of color, working women, lesbians, and others who might be misrepresented or elided altogether from the historical record?
    * How is difference coded in and by the archive?
    * What is the fate of native voices in such institutional settings?
    * What are the practical and ethical concerns for those who archive, research, and seek to publish women’s private writing?
    * How are archival spaces created, negotiated, or subverted?
    * And what might the future hold for archives and archival materials in the digital age?

    Libby Bischof (University of Southern Maine) twittered the papers:


  26. liz2–I’ve never experienced what you describe, but that’s probably because I’ve done research in only North American archives and libraries, where the more salient difference is scholars versus genealogists/buffs. I will say that it was perhaps more difficut for me earlier in my career to establish myself in the archivists’ eyes as a scholar, but once they saw that I had an affililation and got to know me, they pulled things for me for which they’d otherwise give people the 3rd degree.

    What I wonder is, will you ever experience the kind of “breakthrough” that Notorious, Ph.D. did in the post that originally inspired my post here? It sounds to me like you don’t think so. How frustrating!

    Indyanna–it was a noirish scene at the Guilford, Connecticut town archives. Hotshot Harry was there in his bow tie, and I actually was smoking as I recorded the ear marks of various families’ pigs in Guilford in 1647! Good times, all gone now though. (At least the smoking part, if not the ear-marking part.)

    And, anon–I hear you on the skirt length. I thought the same thing after I left my earlier comment–and wondered if I even have a skirt suit with the correct skirt length myself!


  27. And, p.s. to History Maven: You know, I think this conference came up Saturday afternoon in the plenary session in honor of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at the Omohundro Institute Conference at the University of Utah. One of the speakers, Shirley Wajda, was specifically named and praised for her insights by Marla Miller in her discussion of Ulrich’s importance in material history. (I’ll have to check my notes on this–I’ll blog more on this session later this week.)


  28. Smoking in the sense of ripping through the earmarks at the then unheard of pace of ten an hour, right? I think I have some earmarks recorded from communities in the Upper Delaware Valley in the mid l8th century, with some intrusive settlement by Yankees who claimed it was part of Connecticut, would you think of it? Deep in a box somewhere. We could maybe co author a definitive but subversive piece on the evolution of the practice. My other congressman is known as the earmark king, and he doth surely pass around the pork to a smoking degree.


  29. I just want to give a shout-out to the kind folks at the JFK Library. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I did my master’s thesis out here on the left coast. The JFK Library people were fabulous in helping me get documents, including a newly declassified document, for my thesis. All of this long before faxes and emails! I have been very lucky in my good fortune in encountering very pleasant helpful archivists and librarians!


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s