History · Other Stuff

Some Advice for Reading Rooms

As I mentioned in the post on North Carolina museum visits a while back, over the summer I traveled to Duke University for research purposes. I spent just-under 40 hours in the rare-books reading room, mostly scanning documents for my thesis project, which I haven’t discussed at length here but will eventually. In addition, I also spent most of the summer in my school’s special collections reading room researching for work, and another chunk of time in a museum-library reading room looking up stuff as part of my summer internship. All of these were rewarding experiences full of very nice librarians, but I’m here to tell you that as a person with anxiety, reading rooms are the literal worst. 

  1. There are lengthy and specific regulations, but these are largely conveyed verbally when you show up and as you’re handed items. So far I’ve never yet been able to get all the instructions before arriving. They’re generally the same as far as handling — gloves or no gloves for certain materials, etc. — but the actual procedures for getting in and using the room vary widely.
  2. Librarians are watching you the entire time, not to mention other researchers and sometimes security cameras. I don’t hold it against them, the whole point of the thing is to look at valuable documents and they’re going to take precautions to look after those documents, but still. You never know if you’re breaking a rule because of item #1, and you also sit there wondering how badly you’re being judged and for what reasons.
  3. You have to explain yourself over, and over, and over, and over, to every single librarian. These places rotate shifts as often as every two hours, in the big libraries. So you have to explain what you’re working on, and why, and how, and in what order, to every person who shows up. Some research is straightforward, you ask for your box and make notes and give it back and go off to write your paper or whatever, but many other projects are more complicated with different permissions and procedures. It wastes everyone’s time to keep rehashing those things, and it’s also deeply stressful if you have one of those more complicated projects and you never know if the librarian will understand or do things the way the first librarian did.
  4. No coffee, no water, no snacks, no talking. Again, entirely reasonable. This is one thing that definitely shouldn’t change, despite the fact that even the most interesting of topics gets boring if you have nothing to do but stare at papers all day. But it adds yet another layer of discomfort and uncertainty. Is it okay to eat in the lobby? Is it okay to leave and come back, or will I have to go through a registration process again? If I leave, will I return to yet another librarian who doesn’t know who I am or what I’m doing?

If the archives are a one-person operation, these things are less important because you can have a discussion with that person and establish everything from the beginning. If it’s a huge organization, that’s when these issues come into play. And the thing is, they’re all reasonable. Of course there are security cameras. Of course there’s no food allowed. But all this combined is an obstacle course — I’m a professional, and I know how it works at this point, but it’s still agonizing as a person with anxiety. Not only that, it makes the whole thing harder for those who have less experience in academia, either because they’re members of institutionally-disadvantaged groups or because they’re new students. If you’re part of the privileged academic class, you may not realize just how daunting and mysterious the process can be, but you should start thinking about it. As academics, we should all try to make our organizations as accessible as possible.

With that in mind, here are some respectful suggestions:

  1. Please create a list of policies and procedures. This should be available online to prepare visitors for the arrival and registration process. It’s not enough to say “You will be asked to register at the desk” or some such. Be clear. “When you enter the lobby, approach the desk first and provide XYZ. Then feel free to choose a locker and go into the reading room whenever you’re ready.” If there’s another desk in the reading room, say so, and say whether or not the lobby will inform them you’ve arrived. Use more detail than you think you need.
  2. The policies and procedures should also be available as a handout at the desk — as simple as a checklist of “when to ask the librarian for handling instructions” plus the rules for coming and going.
  3. Consider methods to keep coworkers informed about projects currently underway. Maybe a sheet with researchers’ names and any procedural notes. If you have enough staff or a workflow that allows it, you might even assign specific librarians as contact people for individual projects. Some kind of record-keeping here will save time for you as well as us.
  4. Heck, why not put a coffee machine in the lobby? Then instead of all sitting in judgmental silence, researchers could chat a bit as well as caffeinate. Imagine the interdisciplinarity…!
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