Adventures in the Archives
Adventures in the Archives: Tales from the Crypt(ic) Rules of Archive Etiquette

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.

Archive boxes on shelves
Much archival research involves paging though box after box of material. (Image licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Flickr user Digital Collections at the University of Maryland.)

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!).

Glaring cat with text reading Glare
Licensed CC BY-NC 2.0 by Flickr user TimberWolf_qx.

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.

The end.

Just kidding!

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.

18 thoughts on “Adventures in the Archives: Tales from the Crypt(ic) Rules of Archive Etiquette

    • Author gravatar

      One summer I was researching at the Colorado State Archives and because the research tables are set right next to the front desk, I had a front row seat to all of the archivists’ interactions with the public. I was kind of shocked at the behavior of some patrons. In one particular instance, I witnessed a man berate one of the archivists for about 20 minutes because the material he wanted to access was offsite and he had to come back the next day. Throughout my week there I saw many, many people acting pretty rude because the archivists couldn’t immediately interpret their vague requests. In short, don’t be rude to the archivists, people!

    • Author gravatar

      Reblogged this on and commented:
      How do academics behave when no one is looking? Unfortunately, they Bogart a scanner for an entire day and do not share with their colleagues. Meggan Woodbury Bilotte has posted an article at Nursing Clio describes how a researcher almost almost ruined an long distance archive trip by refusing to share a scanner. It’s a legitimate question, was the researcher simply selfish or completely oblivious? My guess is that is was mixture of both.

      Has anyone else had this experience?

    • Author gravatar

      I was so frustrated last year at a very popular archive that other patrons were chatting and joking at normal volume in the research room. It was so distracting! Quiet in the library, folks!

    • Author gravatar

      Oh yeah, I’ve definitely been both the scanner and the glowerer. And then inquiring conversations were had in my politest German–sometimes with the intervention of an archivist on behalf of myself or the other person. At the very least, you will then know how long they plan to hog the scanner, rather than vainly hoping they will soon be done! Or you can tell them you’re only in the country for 3 days and would they mind terribly if you got as much done as possible while you were there? I’m an advocate for speaking up.

    • Author gravatar

      It’s the scanning machine that is the main actor in this situation.

      Free self-serve scanning of documents creates a situation where the researcher does not need to read the documents onsite, using pencil and paper as before the laptop. No selection needs to be made. There is no penalty in money or time spent waiting for photocopies. Every single document can be read at home, on the computer.

      The researchers are reacting to the availability of the technology, which is taken for granted. They are not taking a conscious decision, except perhaps that they wish to save money on hotel bills.

      More generally, those historians who only make brief visits to a particular archive tend to ignore the interests of archivists and other readers. They treat the archive as an object of personal consumption. Fast food. What middle-class customer notices the staff as fellow-humans?

      • Author gravatar

        I think that is a really interesting point, David Harley. I think the idea of research within the framework of technology and personal consumption is really compelling. Though, I would also say that these technological advances have in some ways democratized the research process. There are many scholars who, for various reasons, simply cannot spend weeks or months in an archive. The ability to quickly gather material and sift through it more carefully at a later date has, I would argue, opened up space for more diverse types of researchers than in times past.

        • Author gravatar

          Megan, I don’t disagree with you about accessibility, but the technology shapes of the work. Look at the way historical research has shifted from manuscript archives to printed works, now that so many books and newspapers are available online.

          When I said that the scanner is an actor, I meant that quite literally. The same goes for databases.

          Free scanning may perhaps democratize research, though I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. I work in a field into which people enter from many directions, so that would be welcome. However, apart from helping one to read a collection of personal papers or a long series of official documents, I can’t think that massive scanning is all that useful. All the peripheral material is missed. And for actual manuscripts, it can be well nigh useless, because of the way that bright lighting makes visible the ink on both sides at once.

    • Author gravatar

      I had a colleague who did that with the school photocopier every morning for hours. He wasn’t actually at work- he was on leave so could have done the copying at any time of the day instead of using it at peak hour. Or he could have just come in after school and done the entire week’s worth in one hit. I put up with it the first few days but needed to use the copier to copy worksheets I had created the night before for a difficult class. He was okay about it but it was still awkward every morning. Some people don’t care about being rude so long as their needs are met. They rely on the niceness of the rest of us to get away with it. Don’t let them win! That’s my motto.

    • Author gravatar

      This is a fantastic blog. I’m so happy I found it. I did my Honours thesis on the treatment of “hysterical” females in Britain during the Edwardian period. I spent a lot of time in the archives of the major teaching hospitals using the medical journals from that period but luckily I was by myself the whole two years.

    • Author gravatar

      Great post, Meggan (all Meg(g)ans are awesome, by the way). I am currently on a research trip (also in the U.S. Southwest) and have observed all of these forms of behavior in the archive. The only way to combat it–to not let the rudes win, as you say–is to do as Tschussle suggests above, and speak up. Glowering is exhausting!

    • Author gravatar

      Ooh, free scanning! I do love scanners, but last time I used one at an archive, I got charged 20 cents a scan. I guess that does keep the lines down, at least.

      I want to briefly defend your nemesis as possibly unable to read minds, rather than deliberately rude. I know that when I’m in an archive, I often read for hours before I need the scanner. Did he have a way to know whether you were hoping to use the machine? If not, he might have just been doing his work the most efficient way he could, assuming someone would interrupt him when need be.

      I think archives, with their rules against talking and small populations, often encourage a weird solitude. I actually feel really strange sitting in a room with 2 or 3 other people for days on end, without any of us ever introducing ourselves to each other. But I feel like that’s the norm at archives, so it’s what I do. After all, I don’t want to intrude on others’ precious work time (I know my archival trips are always too short for what I need to get done). And if someone appears to be avoiding eye contact with me, my assumption is that they’d rather not chat.

      But then, it’s as if we’ve taken a vow of silence, so that everyone is supposed to read minds, and know that someone else wants the scanner (or THAT WAS MY TABLE, DARN IT! It has the best light!) or whatever.

      What would happen if historians made a practice of saying hello to each other, and exchanging names, at the beginning of each archive day? Maybe things would go better at the scanner. We might even have company for lunch. Or, who knows, find that we have something academically/intellectually in common, since here we are at the same archive.

      • Author gravatar

        I agree, Lara, that the “quiet rule” of archives seems to extend beyond working in quiet to existing in quiet. I used to tell my friends and family that I never felt so alone as when I went to the archives every day and sat in silence in a room full of people.

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