On the Other Side of the Window: Being an Archives Researcher

It’s different being a researcher in an archive as opposed to being an archivist in your own archive. I guess it can be likened to being a guest in someone’s home in a different country and culture: You’re not sure where things are, what exactly you’re supposed to do, or what’s going to happen. You just hope to not fumble around like an idiot or break things.

It also feels different being an archivist doing research in another archivist’s archive. It feels familiar but… weird. I guess it’s like being divorced on good terms and then going to visit your former half in his/her new home: You share the same standards and general routines, but it’s not your environment. You don’t really need the story about how you use this type of support or those types of gloves but it’s their place and their rules, so you nod accordingly.

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Resist the urge to be an archivist. Not today, spatula. Not today.

Or if you see something done (or not done) that you wouldn’t do (or do). You can’t really say something — because that would be rude — and you can’t fix the problem, even if you know how — because you have no right to — so you blink repeatedly and move on.

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There were no bowed folders at the NY State Archives.

*cough*Then go home and complain on your blog about it*cough*

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Just a theoretical. There were no unnumbered folders.

This past weekend I was on the other side of the research room window, at the New York State Archives. Research is my hobby.

I am lame.

I’ve been there before and blogged about it here, but I didn’t write much about the research room environment.

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Your tax dollars and your history: Working together here.

The State Archives is located on the 11th floor of the Cultural Education Center, also home to the New York State Museum and the New York State Library. You check in, store all of your stuff in a provided locker, and sit at an assigned table after conferring with the archivists on staff.

Generally, a researcher would contact archives staff in advance and ask for materials to be pulled prior to arrival. There’s a paging schedule for day-of requests. I didn’t get his name, but I’d like to give a major shout out of love and gratitude for the archivist with the southern-ish accent on duty Saturday morning. He shrugged off the schedule and had my boxes pulled minutes after I handed over the call slip. YOU ROCK, SIR!!! I hope whatever is going on with the 5th floor gets solved soon.

The research room is a large space with minimal distractions, aside from the cool pictures of old New York filling the walls. A large glass wall (the “window” referred to above) separates this space from the microfilm room and reference area, where archivists keep an eye on things. There are also cameras watching your every move. Have no fear, tax payers! The collections you’ve paid to have arranged, described, and preserved, are in secure hands.

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The assigned tables have outlets in the floor below, so bring an extension cord (you can bring these into the research room, along with iPods, laptops, tablets, and cameras). There’s wifi and air conditioning, so wear long sleeves or a sweater.

And then there’s the supply buffet: a stretch of cabinets with all the things a hunkering-down researcher needs. Scrap paper, book supports, book cradles, magnifying panels, cotton gloves, a place for dirty cotton gloves, clippy things and whatnot.

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Supply buffet
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Stuff!
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Gloves in multiple sizes are very much appreciated.

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It made me happy.

So, you get there, you set up your work area, and you wait for your book cart to arrive.

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Take care of the materials you use. Some are old and falling apart.

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Use supports for texts with delicate bindings.

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It’s support-a-palooza over at the supply buffet. I used a lovely combination of foam wedges and what appeared to be a home-made cradle crafted out of e-flute and tape (MacGuyvering is a class that isn’t, but should be, taught in library school).

Once you’re elbow deep in history, biting your tongue at the way things used to be, take a deep breath; appreciate all those bent folder bottoms.

And enjoy your research. Because it’s fun.

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