Erin Wahl: What is an archives?

In the first of a series of six posts to help writers make good use of archival materials, Erin Wahl explains how archives function and offers some tips for maximizing your use of them. 

You’ve probably been into a handful of public libraries in
your life, checking out dvds and novels. You may have been into multiple
university libraries too, researching the real effects of coffee on the human
nervous system. You may have been in museums and spent some time gazing at
artifacts. But have you been to an archives or special collections? Archives
and Special Collections are all over the place. Some public libraries have
archives. Universities have archives. Museums often have archives as well. Did
you realize that even corporations have archives and special collections?
Recently Lisa Frank, Bacardi, Cartier and Nike were all advertising jobs for
archivists! Archives are probably more common than you think, and in the next
few weeks we are going to explore them. You’re going to learn how they tick and
how you can utilize them efficiently and successfully.

But what is an archives and special collections
exactly? The short answer is that an archives and special collections is a
place where records are kept. The kind of record kept there depends on the
archives. Not all archives can collect all the things in the world. No one has
the space, money or staff for that. So most archives have developed a mission
or collection statement that tells you what, specifically, they collect. This
is helpful for potential donors as well as researchers. Donors know what kinds
of donations would be welcome and researchers can get an idea of whether or not
the archives has the kind of information they want. Archives and special
collections always have some institutional archival materials. These records
are generated from within the institution. Most corporate archives are there
strictly to keep the records of that corporation. Other than that, to know what
you may find you’ll need to figure out the archives’ mission statement.
Websites will often have an “About” section that will tell you what the
institution specializes in. Here’s what you can bet on: archives and special
collections focus on collecting materials that are somehow important to
understanding history. Though some archives and special collections also have
published book collections, the majority of what you’ll find there will be
primary resources. Is your inner nerd singing arias yet?

Why should you want to research at an archives and special
collections? I can tell you from experience: we have some of the best real
untold stories. We also have the told stories. Both are worth visiting and both
are worth writing about. Most people associate archives and special collections
with historians writing large, paperweight-worthy tomes with names drier than
talcum powder, but the possibilities for creative writers are endless! Alaskan
poet Nicole Stellon O’Donnell wrote her book Steam Laundry based on the collections
of Sarah Ellen Gibson found at the University
of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska
and Polar Regions Collections & Archives. I’ve worked in internships and
jobs in several archives and seen the creative likes of Ander Monson, Shelly
Taylor, Joyelle McSweeney, C. D. Wright, Zachary Schomburg and Rita Dove come
in to take a look at materials. Have I name-dropped enough to get you excited
to visit your local archives? Are you getting your coat right now?

Now I have to tell you some difficult stuff. It’s not hard
to tell you, but I already know you won’t like it. Because no one does. Since
archivists are charged with the care and preservation of materials of
historical significance for the long term, something they have to think about
carefully is security. Security can mean the protection of materials from theft
as well as protection of the materials’ stability, which has a significant
impact on their long-term preservation. All archives and special collections
are going to have rules about what you can bring with you when you visit and
rules for access while you’re looking at the collections. We are not doing this
because we’re mean. We are not trying to make your life miserable. And we
certainly haven’t chosen you as the one person in the universe to burden with these
rules. We ask everyone to follow these rules. We are trying to keep the
collections safe and secure so they can last as long as possible. The best
thing you can do before going to a repository is to find out what the rules are
ahead of time. It makes your life easier and ours. Let’s go over a few of the
most common rules you’re going to come across:  

  • Archives
    aren’t going to let you bring your purse or book bag into the research
    room with you. Nothing bulky that you could sneak documents out in is going
    to be allowed.
  • They
    also aren’t going to let you keep any food or drink with you (no, not even
    water and definitely not chewing gum–you’d be surprised at how many
    people are shocked when we tell them they need to spit out their gum).
  • They
    will probably let you bring your laptop. Some places allow cameras. Some
    archives allow portable scanners but many do not because of the potential
    danger to the stability of documents.
  • You
    may not be allowed to keep your notes with you at your desk. Archives
    differ on this one, so check to be sure.
  • You
    absolutely cannot use pen. Pen doesn’t come off if you accidentally swipe
    it across a photo from the 1800s. Pencil is acceptable.
  • Check
    the website. Most archives and special collections have websites, and most
    of those websites will have some section with tips to prepare for a visit.
  • If you
    can’t find the info: call. If the information isn’t so easy to find online
    you can always call a repository and ask what to expect when you come in.
    Check out the “Missions, Policies and Forms” web page for UAA’s Archives and Special Collections Department at the Consortium Library to get an idea
    of what you might see.
Tricks of the Trade:
  • Research
    ahead of time
  • Doing
    a little bit of research ahead of time can speed up your on-site research.
  • Write
    down citations!
  • If
    you’re not sure of the best way to cite something so you can find it
    again, ask the archivist. There’s nothing worse than not having the
    information you need to find that one brilliant document or photograph
  • Bring
    a sweater/cardigan/shawl. There’s a reason we archivists seem to be
    attached to our cardigans. Archives are temperature (50-65 degrees) and
    humidity (20-40%) controlled for the best preservation of the collections.
    Research rooms are usually more suitable for humans, but they still tend
    to be on the cooler side.
  • Don’t
    be afraid to ask. Do you think there’s something you’re missing out on?
    Don’t be afraid to ask the archivists what they think about this or that,
    or what suggestions they might have for successful research.
Supplemental Readings:
“What is an archives?” A
longer, more detailed explanation.
Society of American Archivists Glossary
For all of your archivist jargon needs.
Society of American Archivists
The main page of their website. Surf around!

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, 9am to noon. Click here for more information.

2 thoughts on “Erin Wahl: What is an archives?”

  1. Great info – I've just been thinking about this very thing lately.
    "Inner nerd" definitely "singing arias." 🙂 Thanks

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