Special Collections: What to Expect


Forty years ago I had my first experience with a Special Collection. I went to the Huntington Library to read the diaries of Charmian Kittredge London. The woman next to me was reading Mary Shelley’s letters, which still held their waxen stamps. Another reader was studying poet Wallace Stevens. We were restricted to taking notes in pencil or renting an old typewriter. Today the Readers Room is much larger, better lit, and computers replace typewriters. The operations have not changed much, and I found that room’s processes in many other libraries over the years.

Special Collections hold rare and original materials, such as letters, diaries, handwritten drafts of books or experiments, photographs, maps, and more. They common to university libraries and many local historical sites and museums. In many cases a researcher must seek approval to use the materials. The Huntington is very strict, requiring two letters of reference, and fingerprinting at first visit. The average university will give preference to scholars, graduate students, and established independent writers. These bars to entry are to limit theft of highly-valuable material, as well as ensure the reader treats the archives with the care required.

I still shiver over one experience. Upon asking for a map at a regional library’s special collection, and the clerk, obviously a volunteer, ripped several as she carelessly pored through drawers. That was an extreme case, the result of poor training.

Here are some common expectations when you use archives, such as the Bancroft Library shown in the photograph:

  • Times will be more limited than the general library. For small libraries you may need to make an appointment.
  • Before entering the reading room, you may have to show credentials and lock up all items except the minimum needed for your research.
  • You may be assigned a desk.
  • Materials are ordered from the librarians, so there is a wait time until they are retrieved from their location.
  • There may be a limit to the number of items ordered at one time, such as one file box or two books.
  • No pens are permitted, so take your tablet, laptop, or pencils for note taking.
  • Letters and such loose papers will arrive in an acid-free folder. Keep materials in order within the folder, and return accordingly.
  • Very rare books may require a special stand to protect the bindings.
  • In some cases, you may be given gloves to handle the materials to prevent oil from the hands affecting the paper or map.
  • Handle everything to minimize use. Keep material on the desktop, not held casually.
  • If the library breaks for lunch, you may have to turn your materials in.
  • Sometimes one is able to fill in missing material. For example, you may know who the person is in a letter to “Dear Annie.” Tell a librarian so she can improve the file information.
  • You will likely have a search when you leave. Be prepared to have your notes fanned to ensure nothing has been removed from the collection.

Such regulations are less stringent at smaller institutions, such as an archive in your local library. There’s a thrill in handling items held by the person you are studying. How to find out whether there is a Special Collection for you? I’ll handle that next time.



Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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