Archive books

Using Archives & Special Collections

Archives can seem like intimidating places, with collections locked away and rules which seem off-putting. Also, archives were not created with the needs of future researchers in mind, and this can make them more difficult to understand and use. However, this is also what makes them invaluable in giving unique and often unexpected insights into past events, people and places. They are also usually open to all who wish to use them, and staff are more than happy to help you make the most of the collections and services.

Jenny Higham, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Liverpool Library, explains what to expect when using libraries, reading rooms and special collections.

What are archives and special collections?

The word ‘archives’ are used for many different things: it can mean a place where archives are stored, as well as a collection of materials. You may hear 'archive', 'record office' or 'repository' to refer to a place that preserves and makes available materials for research.

Collections tend to come from either from a place (e.g. a business or organisation); an individual or family; or are materials which have been brought together artificially to reflect a theme. Increasingly, archive collections include electronic records, but most collections are still primarily paper-based. You are likely to find correspondence, photographs, diaries, business papers and official documents amongst other types of material, which may include audio-visual items.

Archives are often housed with printed material (sometimes known as special collections): books, periodicals and pamphlets of an historic nature, or from the collection of a notable individual, or otherwise special in terms of physical appearance or origin. These may be separate collections but often complement and support the archive collections. They will usually have separate catalogues but can be consulted as part of the same service.

Won’t they be difficult to use?

Often you will find out about an archive online, and the website of the holding institution will usually include descriptions of the collections, as well as access to the online catalogue. The online description can tell you a significant amount about the scope, content and nature of the material. 

The items within an archive collection are usually inter-related. For example, one letter forms part of a series of correspondence; that series is one of several series that document the history of an organisation. If you look at a single letter by itself, you may get some useful information, but you may also want to look at it in the context of the series of letters and the collection as a whole, because this illuminates the meaning and significance of the single item. The importance of context explains why archive catalogues are arranged hierarchically, so all the pieces fit together. Be aware of the size of archive collection(s) - some are just a few items, some are hundreds of boxes. You can usually order a few boxes at a time, depending upon the nature of the material.

Archive shelves

Demystifying the rules

Making an Appointment

You will usually need to contact the service in advance to make an appointment. If you are able to locate reference numbers for the material you wish to see, you can mention them at this stage, though if you need some more guidance first staff will be happy to help. With archives being stored away from the reading room for preservation and security reasons – sometimes in a different building - staff need to spend time fetching and returning the items. Some reading rooms have quite limited opening hours, or limited space, and there may also be a requirement to take some identification along in order to register, so it’s best to check.

Reading Room Rules

The popular view is that you have to wear white gloves to handle special collections and archives, but this is rarely the case. Though a visual shorthand beloved of TV producers, cotton gloves actually risk more damage to fragile papers, as the cotton fabric can catch and reduce sensitivity. Clean hands are preferable, though special types of gloves will usually be provided if you are consulting photographic or other non-standard material. You will be asked to use supports and 'book snakes' to prevent over-handling the pages of archives or placing strain on the spines and bindings of rare books; staff will be on hand to provide guidance, and most reading rooms usually have ‘handling guidelines’ which you can refer to if in doubt.

Archives only allow pencils to be used in the reading room. This is to lessen the chances of damage to the documents, but doesn’t mean staff think readers are likely to vandalise the items – ink leaks easily and can be transferred from hands to documents very easily.  Similarly food and drink is not allowed, and coats and bags will need to be left in lockers. This is partly for security reasons, but also to limit the effect of any moisture or outside debris on the materials.

The original material is not always available for use and surrogates (e.g. microfilm) may be provided. This may be because the originals are fragile, damaged, or heavily used. Archives may also be closed to researchers for a period of time because information is sensitive, or because of data protection requirements. Online descriptions of collections usually include information about these restrictions.

Usually wifi and sockets for laptops will be available, but it is worth checking this before you arrive.

Each repository will have its own policy on making copies of items, and it often depends upon the condition of the material and/or its copyright status. The majority also allow you to take your own photographs with a digital camera, though you will need to check any restrictions with staff. If you are not able to visit in person, they will usually be able to supply digital copies for a small fee.

Archival research can be frustrating at times, but is also a fascinating journey of discovery which brings you face to face with the materials of history. Archive services aim to enable and encourage your research whilst ensuring others can continue to benefit from the collections well into the future.

Other useful resources

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