At the Archives

Items absolutely forbidden in archival reading rooms:

  • Pens
  • Highlighters
  • Post-it notes
    • Funny story: when I first started going to the Archives of Ontario I thought I would be all organized for my photocopy requests and brought a packet of post-it notes with me to mark which pages I wanted copied….much to the horror of the archivist who caught me. Turns out the little organizational wonders leave a sticky residue on the archival record that can’t be removed (oops) – most archives have a system that involves inserting sheets of paper around those pages that you want copied. Lesson learned.
  • Food, water bottles, etc
    • This being said, I have been offered coffee on several occasions when first meeting with the archivist or curator at a few repositories that didn’t have traditional reading rooms. It was a nice treat, but I was unbelievably nervous every time I picked up or put down the cup….

Items typically not welcomed in archival reading rooms:

  • Jackets/coats
    • Ex. The reading room at the Massachusetts State Archives says in its rules that you can wear your coat or scarf or sweater in but if you warm up and take these items off, you must put them in your locker
  • Scanners
    • There are some cool hand-held scanners out there on the market now that are small and convenient for travel but I have yet to come across an archive where they’re permitted
  • Tri-pods
    • Many of the archives that permit photographs do not permit “professional” equipment (without prior permissions) so tri-pods and external flashes are best left at home

General Rules of Reading Room Practice:

  • One box on the table at a time (you may only be permitted one box in the room at a time or even one item at a time)
  • One folder out of the box at a time
  • Don’t lean on the materials
  • Keep the documents in a folder or box in the order they were given to you in
    • Sure, those letters might be out of order but they’re in the order they’re in for a reason – don’t rearrange them
    • What reasons you may ask? Original order is common, or chronological, or thematic, or chronological by when they were received by the archives, or simply the order the creator of the collection decided upon

Tools Available to you in the Reading Room:

  • Pencils and pencil sharpener
  • Book supports
    • Triangles often made out of foam
    • Also useful when you need to change the angle on an item you’re trying to photograph
  • Weights
    • Range from light bean bags to heavier weights
    • Can help hold books open, maps open, etc
  • Scrap paper
    • Strips of paper can be used to mark where you took a folder out of a box or mark photocopy requests
  • Gloves
    • Ask the archivist about their glove policies
    • With paper documents some archives ask that you not wear gloves so as not to risk tearing the pages – other places the documents may be so covered in dirt or mould or some unknown item that you may want to ask if you can wear gloves
    • With photographs or artifacts, gloves are often required

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