Accessing the Archives: Stages and Pitfalls of Reaching Primary Sources
Successfully entering an archive at any stage of your research can be very easy or very terrible. I’ve even heard of people traveling all the way to a distant archive, only to be turned back at the door. Though you cannot control everything in your pursuit of primary sources for a dissertation or a thesis report, failing to reach your dream archive does not have to be one of them.
III. Your First Day in the Archive
You’ve finally received permission to look at primary sources. But now what? Chances are you’ve packed too much stuff in your backpack for your first visit, and a lot of it is stuff you won’t be able to take with you.
In a locker, leave your personal belongings including your jacket, your sweater, bottled water, snacks—all of it. All you will need is your laptop and cellphone, or, if you prefer old school technology, a booklet and a pencil (pens are never allowed).
Your appearance should be neat and tidy, and both your hands and face should be clean of all food sauces, perfumes, and heavy makeup. If you touch your face and afterwards touch precious documents (or if your hands are greasy from food), you will damage the resources that your archive is trying to protect.
After going through a possible metal detector, make your way into the interior of archive. Even if you requested ten books, it’s possible that only three will be available at a given time. Choose wisely and know that you should approach your texts by theme, but also that you will never get everything done that you want in a day; be patient with yourself and do your work thoroughly. Never rush. Some archives will allow photos for personal use for free; others will require a moderate fee. Always ask for permission, and never use your flash in these instances.
It will finally be time to go about 30 minutes before the archive’s listed closing hours. A guard will begin to warn patrons about the time and at about 15 minutes to closing you will be ushered out. That is because the listed time is literally when the key turns in the lock, and they need to return all of your books to their rightful places, first.
Guards will also stop you to open your laptop and to leaf through your booklet. This is to prevent theft, as some scholars have been tempted to rip out souvenirs in order to remember their time in the archive. Libraries like the Newberry, in addition to searching you, also have video cameras in all of their reading rooms. Places like the BNE will go the extra step of not even allowing you to have a plastic laptop shell to protect your laptop, in case you’ve hidden scraps of paper there.
Your first day in the archive, however, is not just about the security protocol and respecting the norms of the institution that you are visiting; it is also about looking at texts! The next section of this series will cover how to handle the texts that you will be looking at.
Archives that have contributed to the sum of my experiences include the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Archivo Capitular of the Cathedral of Toledo, the Widener Library at Harvard, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid, the Benson Library at the University of Texas, the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, and the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville.