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Questions to Ask When Visiting a Special Collections Library

By Audrey Golden. Apr 25, 2020. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Libraries & Special Collections, Libraries

Whenever you are in search of a particular rare book that you know a special collections library owns, or when you are seeking out information about a specific author and are hoping to find something exciting and new in that author’s papers, you’ll need to be prepared. Some special collections libraries require you to get permission in advance of your visit to conduct research in a particular writer’s papers (or in the special collections library more generally). Sometimes, especially if a library has recently acquired a collection, it won’t yet be open to researchers. You could really find yourself in a bind if you travel to visit an archive only to learn that you can’t access the materials within it. To prepare for a visit to a special collections library, we have some key questions you should consider before you go and while you’re there.

Is the Collection Open to Researchers?


The first question you should ask—before you go to a special collections library—is whether the papers or rare books collection you’re interested in seeing is open to researchers. As we mentioned above, sometimes a particular collection is unavailable. This is often the case when a special collections library recently acquired the papers of a specific author, and the library needs time to process the materials. At other times, even if a special collections library has owned a collection for a long time, it may be unavailable to researchers for a variety of reasons. For instance, a particular author’s papers may be on loan or may be part of a public exhibit. In short, find out before you go.

Do You Need to Request Access in Advance?

You’ll also need to ask whether you must request access in advance. Most special collections libraries require researchers to request files or boxes at least 24-48 hours in advance, but in some situations that timetable is longer. For example, if a collection is stored offsite, you’ll need to allow time for the collection to be retrieved. Related to requesting specific files or boxes in advance, sometimes an archive will require researchers to obtain permission to research in the archive at all. While this is not typically the case, some international archives, in particular, may have such requirements.

What Are the Reading Room Hours and Requirements?


You’ll want to know the reading room hours—the place where you’ll be looking at the rare books and other materials—and any requirements for using the reading room. For example. Can you take your computer or phone into the reading room? Can you take a pencil and paper into the reading room? Are specific objects prohibited? And what are the procedures for entering and exiting the reading room? A tip: many reading rooms are quite chilly, so bring a sweater.

Do You Have Any Items That Are Not Listed In the Finding Aid?

You will probably be using the finding aid to determine which files and boxes you want to view. Sometimes, however, the special collections library could have rare books and other items related to your research that are not located in the finding aid. The best thing to do is to speak with one of the special collections librarians about your research. 

Can I Take Photos?

The answer to this question varies widely from library to library, or from archive to archive. Sometimes researchers are permitted to take as many photos as they would like, as long as the photos are solely for their own research purposes. In other scenarios, researchers are only allowed to photograph a certain percentage of the papers or objects in the archive, or a certain portion or percentage of a particular document (such as a draft of a novel). And yet other times, still, an archive may require a researcher to pay money in order to take photographs. Sometimes this is a flat photography fee when you enter the archive, while other institutions may have a per-page cost.

If you want to have the archive make photocopies for you, you should always be prepared to pay a fee for this service. Duplication services can also depend upon the features of the item you want photocopied. Some archival documents may be particularly fragile and cannot be copied without risk of damage to the item.

How Do I Handle Permissions and Acknowledgements?

If you plan to use any of the information from the archive for an article you’re writing or in another kind of project, you’ll need to find out whether the archive wants to be cited in a particular way and how you should handle permissions and acknowledgements. You may need permission to cite something you’ve found in the archives, but more often permissions have to do with any photos or duplications you’ve obtained, especially if they’re unpublished. For example, if you want to reproduce one of the images from the archive, you should speak with one of the special collections librarians about permissions. Most archives expect an acknowledgement when you’re citing material from the archive, which should be relatively straightforward.

From large special collections libraries like the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library to small collections like Wesleyan University’s The Reid Cinema Archives, you’re sure to find something interesting and exciting for your research.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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