Erin Wahl: The Questions We Ask in an Archives

I processed the last half of the LaVerne Harrell Clark Photographic Collection during my last term of graduate school in library science. LaVerne took photographs of authors and her collection was donated to the University of Arizona Poetry Center after she passed. Collections of writers’ personal papers and manuscripts are often found in archives. 
In the fourth of a series of six posts to help writers make good use of archival materials, Erin Wahl explains how questions guide archival searches. 

Is there anything (else) I can do from home to prepare?
Asking this question is a boon to archivists. You have already learned a lot of
things you can do before your visit to an archives to prepare. But here’s one
you might not have thought of: will you be asking the right questions? In a
way, this is a moot point, as any good archivist will conduct a reference
interview with you to get at what you want, but having ready answers to the
most common questions that may come up can help you and the archivist figure
out what suits your needs best and what to snag from the stacks for you more
To give you an idea of a typical reference interview I am
going to share with you the one question I both love and loathe as an
archivist. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. This actually happens a lot.
Someone walks into the archive and says: “What do you have here that’s cool?”
This is a hard question for me to answer. Since archives contain unique
materials, most of them one-of-a-kind, I could answer that I have millions of
things that are cool. I find something super neat every single day. Just
yesterday I saw the most awesome 1930s photograph of a woman taste-testing
bread from a local bread factory’s photo folder. I do, of course, have my
favorites. But what’s a favorite item to a nerd like me may not be interesting
to everyone. Of course, at this point, the wily archivist jumps into reference
interview mode. What might you hear after this point? I’m probably going to
tell you that we have an immense amount of materials and that question hinges
on what you as the researcher find most interesting. Then I’m probably going to
tell you what our collection mission is so you have an idea of the range of
materials we keep. After that come the questions.
In fact, let’s have a bit of fun. Research exercise time!
Grab a piece of paper or pull up a saucy Word Document. Think of a writing
project you’re working on right now that could perhaps benefit from some
research either for fact-checking or for a little bit of inspiration. Answer
the questions below as you read through them. In no particular order, and
definitely not verbatim, I’m probably going to ask you:
-Do you have a specific area of interest you can pinpoint?
            -If someone
can tell me they’re interested in something more specific, such as old mines in
the    Southwest that helps me eliminate a
lot of material. Already we’re on our way towards a better answer.
-Within that subject, what kinds of materials are you most
interested in seeing?
            -I won’t
bother suggesting manuscript collections if you tell me you’re really only
interested in maps. If you’re really
not 100% sure, rank your interests so I can find things for you in that order of importance.
-Do you have a specific project you’re working on? Can you tell
me about it?
            -God is in
the details right? So are golden nuggets of archival materials. If you can give
me a detailed descriptions of exactly
what you’re working on, I can
match your project to our collections
more easily. Please, oh please, don’t say it’s top secret. You’d be surprised
how many people tell me this. It
helps me to get an idea about your work because if you can’t tell me what it is I can’t guarantee that
I’m going to be able to be the most helpful in offering
suggestions. Be ready to spill
the beans.
-Have you taken a look at our online catalog/card catalog?
What kinds of search terms have you tried?
            -This is
one of my personal favorites. I love to help people learn to use online
databases. It’s the bit of
teacher in me. Luckily our reference desk computers are really close to the
public computers. I always pull
up the online catalog, give a brief explanation and then ask people to do their own search at that computer while I
search for the same thing at mine. It’s my divide and conquer method. It helps me to understand how you’ve
been searching and where I can fill in
gaps. For instance, people sometimes
come in looking for funeral homes around in the 1880s. They’re usually searching for “funeral homes,” but
in the 1880s you’d look for “undertakers”
and a lot of information is labeled with that search term as well. If I can
help you understand other ways to the
find the information you want, that will make you a better searcher on your own.
Do you have that paper or Word Document filled out? Click
save or put the paper on the fridge. Don’t forget it when you go to the
archives for your visit. There will be more questions than this. Archivists always
ask follow up questions. Journey and destination are connected, after all.
After an archivist has asked enough questions to get a good idea of what you
want they’re probably going to run down the options with you and give you our
recommendations. Which’ll probably go something like this:
that area we have [general # of materials, less than millions but probably
still       impressive unless your topic
is really specific or there’s little info on it out there] number of     things. I think you should probably take a
look at X and Y first and if you like those we can always pull Z too.”
Unless we can identify something really specific, I’m going
to pull the most logical or general materials first. Then I’ll be gauging your
reaction to those to decide what to grab next. These aren’t moments to be sweet
and silent. If we pull something that’s right on the money, let us know so we
can keep going in that vein. If we pull something that’s not quite right, tell
us why. We’ll keep fine-tuning together. 

Asking questions goes both ways in an archives. Being aware
of what archivists may ask you is only the first step. Ask questions to the
archivists as you’re going as well. Creating a dialogue is the best way to find
what you want in an archive.
Fun Reading:
The University of Arizona Poetry Center has kindly allowed
me to take photos in their archives to use in the rest of my posts here. To
thank them for that I’m going to shamelessly encourage everyone to go to their
website and check out the voca audio video
library on their website
. Voca contains recordings of readings of authors
and poets who have visited the Poetry Center throughout the years. You can even
sign up and help them create metadata by tagging the readings with any related
keywords (That’s almost like being a librarian for a while!). Check it out!

Erin Renee Wahl has an MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University and an MA in Information Resources and Library Science from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in various professional and creative venues. Most recently, poetry in Sterling Magazine and an article on historical recipe manuscripts forthcoming in Edible Baja Arizona. She lives and works as an archivist in Tucson, Arizona and visits her family in Alaska whenever possible. You can view her portfolio by visiting her very rudimentary website:

If you’d like to learn more about Writing from Research, Kate Partridge is teaching a class on this topic for 49 Writers on Saturday, October 19 & 26, 9 am to noon. Click here for more information.

1 thought on “Erin Wahl: The Questions We Ask in an Archives”

  1. I love using the divide and conquer method with patrons at my library as well! Mine are usually children, parents, or grade school teachers looking for "chapter books," but same approach.

    Expecting the right questions really does help though. I've seen that speed things along and help find the best materials on both sides of the desk.

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