Library Research Skills Tutorial About the tutorial
Using Resources

Planning your visit

Enquiries and the reference interview

Initiating a reference enquiry with the archivist of a repository is usually the best way of clarifying whether that repository holds anything of interest to you and how to gain access to a collection. You can formulate and send your enquiries by post, telephone or e-mail. In order to discuss your subject in more detail you may need to make an appointment with the archivist for a 'reference interview'.

Contact the archivist if you need help with:

  • defining the keywords for your subject
  • formulating your search strategy
  • translating your questions into the descriptive language of a particular archive (eg identifying names of persons and places)
  • using finding aids and catalogues

The better you define your research subject (see the research subject) and the more background information you provide to the archivist, the more likely that he or she will be able to provide relevant answers. It is important for the archivist to understand fully the entire scope of your research problem and how you intend to use the findings.

Examples of reference enquiries:

'I'm compiling a historical vocabulary used for black bottles manufactured in England in the late 18th century. Do you have any business records or account books of glass manufacturers of the period in England?'

'I'm writing a memoir of the father of one of the students at the University of London. She graduated around 1886 with a BA or MA, and went to become a distinguished headmistress in London. Could you find any student records on her?'

'I need an image of a book or a person reading a book from an illuminated medieval manuscript for a poster to my lecture. Would any of your medieval manuscript books have such images?'

You should not expect the archivist to do your research for you. Unless it is a simple factual question that requires a precise answer, you will always be expected to make a trip to the repository and browse the materials on your own.

Requesting and handling archives and manuscripts

Once you have identified a relevant collection you should contact the holding repository beforehand to arrange your visit. Some repositories operate a minimum of 24-hours notice period. This is to allow the staff of the repository time to find and fetch the right materials for you, and to check on any restrictions on access and use in place for those materials. Some repositories operate a booking system and you may have to wait for an appointment.

In addition, there may be restrictions on access to the material, which may involve closing all or portions of the collection for a period of time, or requiring the permission of the donor to use the collection. In a few cases, use may also be restricted to certain individuals or groups (eg to the members of the university holding the archive). Using unsorted and uncatalogued manuscript collections is also often restricted, and you may have to obtain special permission from the archivist. Some collections may be closed for a specified number of years, in line with the donor's request or legislative requirements.

When you arrive at a repository you will generally be expected to follow a certain 'reading room etiquette'. This is intended for the preservation and security of the rare materials being handled. The rules may vary slightly from place to place, but typically you will be asked to:

  • provide some form of identification
  • sign in in a daily log
  • check your personal belongings into a locker
  • fill out request slips for materials to be fetched
  • use pencils only
  • use white gloves for certain fragile or valuable items

Many repositories now facilitate the use of a personal notebook computer for taking notes. Fetching is usually done at regular intervals and not on demand. You will be given only one unit of material to use at any one time. It is usually possible to arrange for material to be placed on reserve for a short period of time for your return visits.

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