Every classroom-based research experience in the archives has to begin with an overview of how to handle archival documents. This can be accomplished at the start of a visit to the reading room, or archives staff can make an on-campus pre-visit to prepare students ahead of time.
While the policies will vary at different archival repositories, you can see the care and handling handout we created at Brooklyn Historical Society below. We generally allotted 15 minutes to review this. This is one reason it is very important not to allow latecomers to archives visits – students cannot miss this information and expect to get to participate.
Do not, however, talk about care and handling with students as “rules.” Going over a list of prohibited behaviors can sound punitive, and that is counter-productive to getting students new to archives to feel comfortable with primary sources.
Instead, talk about care and handling as stewardship. This empowers students to take responsibility for the collections, and to see themselves as part of a tradition of caring for our cultural heritage.
Our Standard Introduction: Upon Arrival
Just outside of our library doors, we ask students what kinds of libraries they tend to use (the public library, their school library). We explain that our library is a special collections library with rare books, archival materials, and other primary sources and that it therefore functions a little differently.
At this point, we only tell students what they need to know to get in and get settled. Staff at other archives should develop their own script based on their space and policies. We tell students that we are going to ask them to check their coats and bags before sitting down, and instruct them to take the opportunity to get whatever they might need out of their bags now – a pencil (not a pen); a handout, notebook, tablet, or whatever else they need for class; and a digital camera.
We then escort students in and show them where they can stash their stuff, where they can sign in, and where the class can sit for the introduction.
Our Standard Introduction: In the Archives
The care and handling section is replicated below. The italicized script explains how we present it to students:
We ask students to go around and read each bullet point aloud.
Reading Room Policies & Procedures
Archives and special collections libraries are concerned with the security and preservation of collections.
Because the materials we have are unique, we want to ensure that they are available not just to you, but to the next class, and to students 100 years from now. That means we are all responsible for making sure the collections stay safe and in good condition for future researchers
All users must sign in using the SAFA Library Sign-In form.
Why did we ask you to do this? Security – in case something goes missing. Also for our own records.
All students must sign a Copyright Statement upon first visit to BHS.
All coats, briefcases, bags, backpacks, and purses are not allowed in the reading room and must be checked upon entrance to the library. You may wear extra layers at the discretion of BHS staff.
Why did we ask you to do this? Preservation – a wet coat or the big puffy sleeves of a jacket can accidentally harm collections. Security – collects can intentionally or inadvertently go missing in bags.
No food, drink, or gum is allowed in the Library.
Preservation – to prevent spills, crumbs, and bugs.
Pencils only may be used for note taking. Readers may not use pens, highlighters, markers, or post-it notes. Laptops and tablets are permitted for note-taking.
Preservation – it’s not that we think you will intentionally take out a Sharpie and mark up an 18th-century slave bill of sale. But mistakes happen, pens leak.
The use of the digital cameras without flash is permitted.
In fact, it is encouraged. We already asked you to bring your cameras in. Why no flash? Preservation – light exposure, over time, increases decay. In fact, when these collections are not being used they are typically kept in a folder, in a box, in a dark room.
Theft, destruction or mutilation of the materials is a crime.
We don’t really dwell on this aspect of our institution’s policy, the message is clear.
Materials do not circulate.
What does “circulate” mean? That we are not a lending library – you cannot take anything out. All research has to occur here.
Care & Handling of Archival Materials
After students reach each bullet point, we demonstrate proper care and handling with non-archival materials.
Keep documents flat and completely on the table (not hanging off the edge).
You can touch most documents, but be careful. Do not lean on them, hold them up, etc.
Please watch long necklaces, loose clothing (such as hoodie ties or scarves), and long hair.
Do not place anything under or on top of archival materials.
If you abide by this, the next point shouldn’t be an issue
Do not write on anything on top of a document.
Point with your finger, not with your pencil.
Now, this sounds simple but is actually one of the hardest habits to form! It is instinct, while taking notes, to use the same hand to point out something interesting to your neighbor. But resist the urge – use your other hand, or set the pencil down. We all have to help each other remember to change our behavior this way.
White cotton gloves must be worn to touch photographic prints and film. Do not wear cotton gloves when handling paper materials.
Use a book cradle for volumes with a weak or broken binding. Snakes can help weigh down pages.
Please maintain the original order of unbound material.
Watch for special care and handling instructions on citation slips.
Pre-visits are especially useful when the planned archives visit will be an hour and a half or less. A pre-visit allows everyone to maximize time in the archives with something that can only be done in the archives – using the collections!
A pre-visit also allows us to better prepare students for the archives ahead of time. With a pre-visit, they should definitely know to bring a sweater (it is very cold in our library) and not to stop for coffee immediately before class. See the pre-visit packet we created, with slightly different language than the standard visit forms, here.
A pre-visit also lets concepts of preservation, security, even provenance and access marinate with students before they arrive in the reading room. In the courses we worked with which opted for a pre-visit, the students asked much more advanced questions along these lines at their first or second visit. Normally, it would take several visits before students start to wonder, “Wait, how do you get all of this stuff?” or, “How do you save emails since we don’t write as many letters anymore?” or, “So you’re saying anyone can come here and use this stuff?”
The only real drawback is scheduling. Going to visit one class for just 20 minutes will preclude being able to welcome a full class visit back at the archives during that same time period.
Short Intro for Returning Students
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Teach Care and Handling,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/care-and-handling/.