Thursday, September 19, 2013

Erin Wahl: What is an archives?

In the first of a series of six posts to help writers make good use of archival materials, Erin Wahl explains how archives function and offers some tips for maximizing your use of them. 

You’ve probably been into a handful of public libraries in your life, checking out dvds and novels. You may have been into multiple university libraries too, researching the real effects of coffee on the human nervous system. You may have been in museums and spent some time gazing at artifacts. But have you been to an archives or special collections? Archives and Special Collections are all over the place. Some public libraries have archives. Universities have archives. Museums often have archives as well. Did you realize that even corporations have archives and special collections? Recently Lisa Frank, Bacardi, Cartier and Nike were all advertising jobs for archivists! Archives are probably more common than you think, and in the next few weeks we are going to explore them. You’re going to learn how they tick and how you can utilize them efficiently and successfully.

But what is an archives and special collections exactly? The short answer is that an archives and special collections is a place where records are kept. The kind of record kept there depends on the archives. Not all archives can collect all the things in the world. No one has the space, money or staff for that. So most archives have developed a mission or collection statement that tells you what, specifically, they collect. This is helpful for potential donors as well as researchers. Donors know what kinds of donations would be welcome and researchers can get an idea of whether or not the archives has the kind of information they want. Archives and special collections always have some institutional archival materials. These records are generated from within the institution. Most corporate archives are there strictly to keep the records of that corporation. Other than that, to know what you may find you’ll need to figure out the archives’ mission statement. Websites will often have an “About” section that will tell you what the institution specializes in. Here’s what you can bet on: archives and special collections focus on collecting materials that are somehow important to understanding history. Though some archives and special collections also have published book collections, the majority of what you’ll find there will be primary resources. Is your inner nerd singing arias yet?

Why should you want to research at an archives and special collections? I can tell you from experience: we have some of the best real untold stories. We also have the told stories. Both are worth visiting and both are worth writing about. Most people associate archives and special collections with historians writing large, paperweight-worthy tomes with names drier than talcum powder, but the possibilities for creative writers are endless! Alaskan poet Nicole Stellon O’Donnell wrote her book Steam Laundry based on the collections of Sarah Ellen Gibson found at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives. I’ve worked in internships and jobs in several archives and seen the creative likes of Ander Monson, Shelly Taylor, Joyelle McSweeney, C. D. Wright, Zachary Schomburg and Rita Dove come in to take a look at materials. Have I name-dropped enough to get you excited to visit your local archives? Are you getting your coat right now?

Now I have to tell you some difficult stuff. It’s not hard to tell you, but I already know you won’t like it. Because no one does. Since archivists are charged with the care and preservation of materials of historical significance for the long term, something they have to think about carefully is security. Security can mean the protection of materials from theft as well as protection of the materials’ stability, which has a significant impact on their long-term preservation. All archives and special collections are going to have rules about what you can bring with you when you visit and rules for access while you’re looking at the collections. We are not doing this because we’re mean. We are not trying to make your life miserable. And we certainly haven’t chosen you as the one person in the universe to burden with these rules. We ask everyone to follow these rules. We are trying to keep the collections safe and secure so they can last as long as possible. The best thing you can do before going to a repository is to find out what the rules are ahead of time. It makes your life easier and ours. Let’s go over a few of the most common rules you’re going to come across:  

  • Archives aren’t going to let you bring your purse or book bag into the research room with you. Nothing bulky that you could sneak documents out in is going to be allowed.
  • They also aren’t going to let you keep any food or drink with you (no, not even water and definitely not chewing gum--you’d be surprised at how many people are shocked when we tell them they need to spit out their gum).
  • They will probably let you bring your laptop. Some places allow cameras. Some archives allow portable scanners but many do not because of the potential danger to the stability of documents.
  • You may not be allowed to keep your notes with you at your desk. Archives differ on this one, so check to be sure.
  • You absolutely cannot use pen. Pen doesn’t come off if you accidentally swipe it across a photo from the 1800s. Pencil is acceptable.
  • Check the website. Most archives and special collections have websites, and most of those websites will have some section with tips to prepare for a visit.
  • If you can’t find the info: call. If the information isn’t so easy to find online you can always call a repository and ask what to expect when you come in. Check out the “Missions, Policies and Forms” web page for UAA’s Archives and Special Collections Department at the Consortium Library to get an idea of what you might see.
Tricks of the Trade:
  • Research ahead of time
  • Doing a little bit of research ahead of time can speed up your on-site research.
  • Write down citations!
  • If you’re not sure of the best way to cite something so you can find it again, ask the archivist. There’s nothing worse than not having the information you need to find that one brilliant document or photograph again.
  • Bring a sweater/cardigan/shawl. There’s a reason we archivists seem to be attached to our cardigans. Archives are temperature (50-65 degrees) and humidity (20-40%) controlled for the best preservation of the collections. Research rooms are usually more suitable for humans, but they still tend to be on the cooler side.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. Do you think there’s something you’re missing out on? Don’t be afraid to ask the archivists what they think about this or that, or what suggestions they might have for successful research.
Supplemental Readings:
“What is an archives?” A longer, more detailed explanation.
Society of American Archivists Glossary For all of your archivist jargon needs.
Society of American Archivists The main page of their website. Surf around!

Erin Renee Wahl has an MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University and an MA in Information Resources and Library Science from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in various professional and creative venues. Most recently, poetry in Sterling Magazine and an article on historical recipe manuscripts forthcoming in Edible Baja Arizona. She lives and works as an archivist in Tucson, Arizona and visits her family in Alaska whenever possible. You can view her portfolio by visiting her very rudimentary website:

If you'd like to learn more about Writing from Research, Kate Partridge is teaching a class on this topic for 49 Writers on Saturday, October 19 & 26, 9am to noon. Click here for more information.


Anonymous said...

Great info - I've just been thinking about this very thing lately.
"Inner nerd" definitely "singing arias." :) Thanks

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Good advice, thanks. I found the UAF and UAA archivists to be very helpful.