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Typical Usage Guidelines in Archival Repositories

Researchers may be surprised initially at how different it is to use materials in an archives versus a public or academic library. Archives have access guidelines designed both to help preserve materials and protect them from theft, thus ensuring they will remain available for future researchers. This section will list some typical usage guidelines found at archives and the reasons behind them. Guidelines will differ between repositories, so always check what guidelines an archives has in place.

Registry and personal identification: Many archives ask researchers to fill out an application, registry card, online form, or acquire a researcher card before they begin using materials. The forms typically include name, address, institutional affiliation, materials to be used, and a description of the research project. Photo IDs may also be requested. Such registration practices familiarize the archival staff with the researchers to better serve their research needs and interests, and may also be used to aid a criminal investigation in the event that theft is discovered. Some archives also require a note of recommendation or special permissions before admitting researchers.

Removal of coats and bags: Another method used to discourage theft is requiring that researchers remove bulky outer clothing and store purses, bags, binders, and laptop cases outside of the research area. Many archives have lockers or other monitored areas that researchers can use to store personal possessions. If the only storage option is a nonsecure environment, such as a public coat rack, be sure to remove valuable items like keys and wallets from bags and pockets.

No food, drink, or gum: This guideline is designed to help preserve the collections. Spills can irreparably damage documents or require costly repairs by a conservator. The presence of food may also attract insects or rodents that infest archival materials.

Use of pencil only: This is a preservation practice in case accidental marks are made on archival materials; pencil can be erased while pen marks cannot.

Request forms: Forms are used in a variety of situations, from “call slips” that specify the boxes or books a researcher would like to see, to forms requesting reproductions (such as photocopies). Some forms have very practical uses, like verifying that the correct materials are retrieved, calculating fees, or keeping track of usage for statistical and preservation purposes. By recording exactly which materials were used and by whom, forms can also serve as a theft deterrent. Finally, forms can be useful in notifying the researcher of any legal requirements to take into consideration for how materials are used. Example: Photocopies of unpublished materials provided for a researcher may require additional permissions before they are published. The researcher’s signature on the request form indicates that the signer has read and understood these stipulations, and that the archival repository has done its duty informing researchers that those conditions exist.

Gloves: In most cases clean hands free of lotions or perfumes are sufficient for handling materials. Gloves may be necessary for handling objects or photographs in order to protect the materials from the oils and other residues left by hands. The archives should provide gloves if they are required.

Laptops, cell phones, cameras, recorders, and personal scanners: Many archives allow the use of cameras, laptops, and other personal digital devices, but restrictions may exist. Materials may require permissions before they are reproduced, and the lights used by cameras and scanners can cause text and images on documents to fade if they are overexposed. Hence, guidelines in these areas are for security and preservation purposes, as well as for ensuring that all researchers can work in a relatively quiet, distraction-free environment. Archival staff may also ask to inspect any devices researchers bring with them before entering or leaving the research area.

Careful handling and maintaining order: To ensure that materials are maintained for future use, all archives ask researchers to handle materials carefully. While older materials are generally thought to be more fragile, even new materials need to be handled with care so they remain available to the next generation of researchers. Archives may provide specialized tools like book pillows to help preserve materials during use.

It is also important that materials remain in the order in which the researcher received them so they can be located later and observed in their proper contexts. Misfiling or changes in order can lead the archival staff to assume that items are missing and inconvenience future researchers. Repositories generally provide place markers to help a researcher keep materials in order and to mark items requested for photocopying. An archives may have additional guidelines like removing one folder from a box at a time, leaving reshelving to archival staff, etc.