Adventures in the Archives: Tales from the Crypt(ic) Rules of Archive Etiquette
This summer I, like many of my colleagues, packed up my laptop and #2 pencil and headed out to foreign archives in distant lands—and by that I mean I took a research trip through the beautiful U.S. Southwest.
I had two archives to visit, and I was sure to contact both a couple of weeks before my trip to make sure the collections I desired were available and accessible, as well as to familiarize myself with any rules or regulations that may not have been listed on the archives’ respective websites.
The first archive was small and quiet, located in the basement of a lovely campus library. I got the feeling that the general public didn’t use these collections very often, as the staff seemed surprised to see me, though the archivist, with whom I’d been in contact a few weeks earlier, immediately remembered who I was and what I was there to see. Everyone was friendly and relaxed, and I was able to call my materials immediately, use the copier machine at my leisure (I’m between digital cameras at the moment), and was the only researcher in the archive during my entire visit.
My tale of woe begins with the second stop on my trip, which was a much more well-known archive that generally receives a lot of daily traffic from researchers.
The reading room was grand, though not large, and filled with enclosed library cases and mahogany tables. It was a wonderful space in which to work.
This archive also had an amazing scanner station—a KIC Bookeye 4—a scanner that allows you to easily and efficiently scan your documents and save the images, for free, to a flash drive. It was, basically, a non-camera-wielding researcher’s (me!) dream come true.
Sometime during my second day in the archive, however, I noticed something disturbing happening at the scanning station.
No, researchers weren’t bending frail bindings or going commando when they should have been using gloves. (Though those things are bad, too. Don’t do them.) Instead, what I witnessed was someone monopolizing the only scanner station in the room, for several hours. This person would leave their documents on the scanner while retrieving more from the box (also against archive protocol, btw) and saunter back to start a new scan job without so much as a glance around to see if anyone was waiting. Or glaring (me!).
After one hour I was annoyed.
After two, I was livid.
I know, I know.
I should have said something.
But I didn’t.
I just continued working and glaring—recording in my notes the items that needed to be scanned once I got the opportunity–hoping, and waiting. And seething. I was only going to be in town for a few days. The clock was ticking, and my anger rising.
Eventually it became clear that I would not get a turn at the scanner that day. I decided I would get to the archive early the next morning to get the previous day’s scanning done right away. You know, before the riffraff showed up.
Turned out, someone else had that plan, too.
Upon entering the reading room, wild-eyed and under-caffeinated, I discovered that another researcher–who had been waiting and (presumably) stewing over the previous day’s display of bad manners was already there, scanning feverishly.
Ok, I thought, no big deal. I’ll just wait my turn. This person also had seemed irritated about having to wait the previous day. Surely, I thought, this person would not repeat the bad behavior. So, again, I waited and worked. And I waited. And waited. And this time I waited even longer than before, while my new nemesis happily scanned to their heart’s content for the better part of an entire morning, while my time in the archive slowly drained away.
I eventually got my turn, and neither these seemingly oblivious scholars nor my fear of confrontation prevented me from finally scanning the material I needed.
But it did leave me with a curiosity regarding archive etiquette that I hadn’t previously considered. Was it unreasonable of those two patrons to bogart the scanner for hours on end when there were other researchers in the room? Was I the one being unreasonable for expecting these scholars to hurry up for the sake of others in the room who might be waiting? Should I have spoken up, or was it good that I remained silent while my peers finished their work?
I think most of us who spend a lot of time in archives strive to be polite and considerate to the archivists, staff, and fellow researchers–but archival research is such a personal experience, you do get kind of swallowed up in your own importance. It’s just you and your collection, for hours (or days or weeks) at a time, and for many of us, there is much riding on the fruits of this research.
I can see, then, how someone might get lost in that sense of self-importance–a “my project is more important to me than your project, so I will use this scanner until I’m good and done!” or even a, “my project is more important to me than your project, so why can’t you just finish up with that scanner already?!” sort of mentality, ghoulishly growing out of the highly individualized work that independent researchers generally do.
Though some amount of isolation in this type of work is usually required, it is important not to lose sight of both consideration for, and patience with, those around us. The highly individual nature of work in the humanities, and the self-absorption it can create, does not need to come at the expense of our own humanity.
Still, that doesn’t make it any less infuriating when you’re the one waiting for the scanner.
What about you, readers — do you have an archives etiquette horror story? If so, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!
Meggan Woodbury Bilotte is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. Originally from Wyoming, she is now one of the many transplants to call Madison, Wisconsin home. She is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a mother, a partner, a teacher, and a student of the world. In her academic life she studies midwifery, motherhood, and modernity in the American West. In her home life she studies crayon drawings and the physics of flying kisses.