Loving Your Library (Part II)

After a brief break for shoveling snowdrifts, Ms. Bossy delivers the promised followup on How to Love Your Library. Just a few more rules (excuse us, suggestions) for making the most of a research trip:

Ask about what’s digitized. If the library has an online catalogue, study it, then call the library with a focused set of questions. You might even strike gold and find that the library has put its collections of photos and postcards online. In many cases, online archives are an ever-evolving work in progress, with materials added as more funding becomes available.

Follow local regulations. They vary greatly. I have researched in libraries where you never, ever browse the holdings; the staff retrieves materials you request. I have been in places where they cheerfully wave you into the archive room with a reminder that they close at 6 P.M.

A very incomplete list of some rules you may encounter:

• Wear white cotton gloves while handling old books and papers, if they ask you to. Even if they don’t, it’s nice to have your own pair – you can find them for $5 a dozen online if you look around.

• Turn pages properly – which you should also do whether they ask or not. Don’t reach for the corners; on old books they are apt to crumble under the pressure of your fingers. Instead, slide a finger carefully under the center of the page edge and gently turn it.

• No pens allowed in the archive room.

• No briefcases or purses in the archive room. (Usually they’ll lock them up for you, and I’ve been able to bring my laptop along, just not my briefcase.)

•  No photographing documents.

Obviously not all rules apply in all places. Also obviously, it’s bad form to whine to the librarian that you were able to photograph the ledger pages at the Whatsis Library, so why not here? Not that you would do such a thing, I know.

Thank everybody. A lot. Librarians are some of the nicest people around. (Either that, or they are the most underrated actors imaginable.) I’m amazed at the genuine interest and enthusiasm librarians show when I turn up on their doorstep researching complete strangers. So say thanks. Consider a donation, if you can. And if you live within shouting distance, consider volunteering your services as a transcriber. If that fabulous pamphlet listing prominent Civil War veterans isn’t indexed online, it isn’t out of spite; it’s because there isn’t enough money or time.


How to Love Your Library (Part I)

Two sad but true things: One, I have a bossy streak. I prefer to call it an “orderly streak,” but either way, it must be genetic. Not only has it emerged in older relatives; lately I’ve noticed one of my daughters making lists of rules for her dolls.

Two, I can’t help overhearing things at the library, which wouldn’t happen if people remembered to lower their voices, but nobody does anymore, do they?

Based on what I’ve overheard, and seeing as this is National Love Your Library Month, it may be time to share some Rules for Proper Library Researcher Behavior:

Make an appointment. Many libraries are strapped for cash and space. Often this affects who can help you, and when. The “local historian” may be a part-timer or even an occasional-timer who volunteers when they can. The “archives” might be on the shelves in a conference room used for community meetings on alternate Tuesdays. Do not waste your time or the library’s by walking in without notice to research a genealogy question. It’s a recipe for disappointment.

Learn about the holdings before you go. It helps you stay focused on your visit, and it helps the library, in case they need extra time to get something out of deep storage. Some examples:

•     Does the library have city directories? What years do they cover?

•     Is the local newspaper available on microfilm or in bound copies? Is there a subject index? (If not, see  “Do your newspaper homework,” below.)

•     Any other local periodicals – magazines, historical society journals, etc.?

•    Are there local histories or biographical indexes? When were they written and what towns do they cover?

•     Are there any specific family histories or genealogies?

•     Any vintage maps, and if so, what time frame?

Do your newspaper homework. If the local newspapers are not indexed (many aren’t), try to narrow your search as much as you can. This might mean reviewing your past notes, taking another hard look at census entries, or reading up on the general history of an historical event. Also, ask ahead about the appearance and general layout of the newspaper. Did it divide its news into local and national sections? Was there always a police blotter? Did it run wedding and engagement notices every day, or once a week? Knowing how the newspaper arranged its information can speed your search.

Whee! Ms. Bossy is having fun. A few more rules — er, tips —  in my next post.


Legacies and disasters

Jill Hurst-Wahl at Digitization 101 discusses the question of how Haiti’s archives and libraries have weathered last week’s terrible earthquake disaster. The initial report from this Facebook librarians’ group was unexpectedly good news: Haiti’s National Library was one of the few buildings left standing in its area; books and shelves were intact.

I was interested and glad to see the topic come up, even though the question often  arises as to whether it’s appropriate to worry about it at a time like this. Yet, when is the right time to think about cultural cornerstones? Two months from now? Two years?

So many legacies, large and individual, are buried when these disasters strike. Ultimately it’s a vital service, trying to hold onto cultural treasures when all hell breaks loose.

My prayers go out all Haitians, especially after this morning’s 6.0 magnitude aftershock there.


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