Monday, May 3, 2010

A Not-So-Gentle Reminder to Special Collections Researchers

Prompted by "A Gentle Reminder to Special Collections Curators" by Todd Gilman, printed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29, 2010. This piece rubbed me the wrong way, and it was even worse when I re-read it. I think I'll just go through the article and comment on what I see as the pros and cons of Dr. Gilman's experience. His text is italicized, and my thoughts are in bold. (I am not the only person to respond to this article, by the way; you can find other thoughts online and in the comments to the original article.)

"Over the years, I have had occasion to visit many special-collections libraries in the United States, Canada, and Britain, conducting research on 17th- and 18th-century literature and music. Many of those visits have been some of the most positive and memorable experiences I have had as a researcher since I entered a Ph.D. program in English in the late 1980s. The library I remember the most fondly is Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., where I spent three glorious months on a postdoctoral fellowship in 1995. Everyone there was so kind and helpful that it was truly a joy to enter the building each morning."

So not all libraries are guarded by dragons. Good to know.

"Unfortunately, at other institutions I have had not-so-pleasant encounters. On top of that, students in a graduate book-history course I teach from time to time report a cold or condescending reception from curators when they have needed to read materials in preparing their final papers.

As an instructor, I cringe when I hear such reports from students, some of whom surely felt intimidated before even setting foot in a rare-book library. But far worse, as an academic librarian myself, I feel professionally affronted by such uncollegial behavior."

I agree, Dr. Gilman, that your graduate students should not receive a "cold or condescending reception from curators." As an archivist in an academic library, however, I would like to ask if you worked with the curators ahead of time? Did they know your students needed to use rare materials? If a visit to the archives was not possible during class time, did you invite the curator to speak to the students in your classroom or participate online? As an academic librarian, surely you have been visited by students who were not fully prepared by their professors for their assignments. Working together as teacher and librarian is much more useful than sending students to the archives "cold." I would expect significant advance preparation when working with a librarian who is also a professor, especially one who has taught the class before.

"If you have never visited a special-collections library, you might be wondering how such encounters play out. Let me describe my own recent run-in with an overprotective curator."

"Overprotective." Interesting. Let's find out more...

"In March I found myself in London attending a lovely evening concert that formed part of the 33rd London Handel Festival. As I flipped through my thick festival program, itself priced like a rare book at 10 pounds ($15—in addition to the cost of the concert ticket), my eye fell upon a half-page advertisement inviting readers to visit "the largest private collection of Handel memorabilia."

A $15 souvenir concert program? Hardly the cost of a rare book. But ok, go on with your story.

"As a long-term student of Handel's life and works, I have known about the collection for many years. I also knew that, back in the day, one had to contact the collector himself and ask to use the collection at his house—a prospect that seemed unimaginably daunting to me.

Yet now here it was, offered to the public! The advertisement went so far as to list the collection's hours, which even conveniently included weekend days, and noted the location, near the Russell Square Underground Station. My lingering sticker shock over the price of the program instantly yielded to feelings of euphoria akin to having discovered an old parchment map leading to the proverbial pirate's booty."

("Sticker shock"? Enough already.) Even though you don't name the collection, Dr. Gilman, it's easy enough to figure it out. The Foundling Museum's website lists its hours as "Tues. - Sat. 10am - 5pm, Sun. 11am - 5pm; closed on Mondays." The page specifically for the Gerald Coke Handel Collection tells us that "In addition to the public exhibition room, open during normal Museum hours, The Gerald Coke Handel Research Library is open Wednesday-Friday for research purposes by appointment."

"The next morning, my last in London, I laid aside my other plans and eagerly caught the Tube to the museum where the Handel collection was housed, bursting to take a look. When I entered the building and asked about the collection, the woman behind the ticket window looked at me a bit apprehensively but said nothing. Instead she made a phone call, whispered discreetly, then hung up and told me that the curator would be down in a moment."

I don't know which of the many Handel concerts you attended, so I have no way to know what day of the week you visited the museum (although later we will discover that it's one of the Tues. - Sat. days). However, you certainly didn't make a research appointment, Dr. Gilman.

"Immediately an alarm went off in my mind. "Oh no," I thought. "Why is the librarian coming down instead of inviting me up?" Before I knew it, a young English woman, perhaps 35 years old, was standing before me, unsmiling. She introduced herself, and I introduced myself, explaining that I was a researcher of 18th-century English music and theater and, as it happens, myself a librarian at Yale University. The institution's name, she said, "sounded familiar." Ignoring her warning shots, I asked to see the storied Handel collection.

Let's look at these words, shall we? "Alarm." "Unsmiling." "Warning shots." You appeared at this "storied collection" with no advance notice, no letter of introduction, possibly not even a business card. I don't blame her for not inviting you up.

"Predictably, my temerity triggered those dreaded words that steal over a researcher's heart like an icy hand; the words we librarians know as code for 'not on your life.'"

Smart woman.

"'Have you checked our online catalog?' she asked, already certain of the answer. 'No,' I replied calmly, trying not to reveal my desperation at knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt what was coming next. 'I only just learned of the availability of the collection last night when I saw an ad in my concert program.'

'Well, what are you looking for, exactly?' she rejoined, poised to deliver the final blow. 'We're not open to the public,' she sneered, reserving special emphasis for 'the public,' that vilest category of being. 'You can't just show up! You need to inquire, then make an appointment, you see.'"

Again with the word choices: "final blow," "sneered," vilest category of being." Yes, she could have offered to help you look through the catalog or to show you the public exhibition room. However, it's entirely possible that she was trying to catalog the collection when you appeared out of the blue.

"Lucky for me, having been through this before with many other librarians just like her, I was prepared."

Well, aren't we lucky that you knew how to "Handel" her?

"'Oh, really?' I replied mock-innocently. 'Then why does this half-page ad in the program state that you're open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today?' As I reached into my bag to produce the evidence, she realized the troops were advancing and she would be forced to bring out the heavy artillery.

Scowling, she sighed, 'Oh, all right. Come with me.'"

She's nicer than I would have been at this point. Disclaimer: I have not seen the program or the advertisement you saw. However, having worked with marketing staff, my guess is that the ad was for the museum as a whole, not specifically for the Handel collection. A savvy PR person, though, interested in increasing attendance, highlighted that collection in order to draw people to the museum. By placing the ad in a Handel concert program, it certainly reached its intended audience. I'm guessing the librarian had not seen the ad before you showed her the program. She almost certainly had not been given the chance to provide input on it before it went to press.

"As we got in to the elevator, she lobbed a new grenade. 'We're short staffed, you see. And I'm training someone today. Can you tell me exactly what it is you're after? You can't browse the collection because it's shelved by size, you see.'"

She was trying to be polite. Seriously, I wouldn't have taken you upstairs.

"Of course, as a librarian myself I realized that made no sense as an objection: It would be easy to browse the collection since all the books were neatly arrayed on open shelves. I didn't care what order they were in. I wanted to see what was there and could easily have done so if she had let me at them."

No offense, Dr. Gilman, but to an archivist, it makes perfect sense. Archival items are stored by size in a variety of manuscript, record, and oversize boxes, map cases, book shelves, artifact boxes, etc. An unprocessed collection like this one is probably scattered all over the workroom and shelves. Been there, done that, live with it daily.

"But clearly she had successfully used those same words in the past to discourage other hopeful researchers, which is doubtless why she tried them on me. She was even savvy enough not to wait for my comeback. She entered her office with me following, sat at her computer, and prompted me to feed her keywords she could use to search the catalog for me."

Yep. That's what we do in libraries, particularly in special collections and archives. We discourage hopeful researchers. Dadgum it, you're onto us. (Oh, and there's no way you would be in my office at this point.)

"Since she hadn't offered to let me search myself, I knew she was determined to make quick work of me. After perhaps three of her very narrow searches yielded nothing unique—only secondary sources I had seen before—I realized I wouldn't find anything useful unless I had the opportunity to search on my own, trying different approaches as I discovered the scope of the collection."

Wait. Didn't you just say you "fed" her the keywords? And earlier you said, "As a long-term student of Handel's life and works, I have known about the collection for many years." Perhaps you should have known better what terms to have her search for. In her office. When you didn't have an appointment.

"That was so obviously not going to happen that I finally just thanked her politely and turned to leave. I had been in her office perhaps five minutes. Realizing she had won her battle even more quickly than expected, she mumbled an apology about how it was just a bad day, what with her being short staffed and having to train a new person and all."

Chances are, she didn't see it as "winning her battle."

"And so the dragon succeeded in guarding the hoard."

Again with the words. Really, sir? (And may I remind you that the patron saint of England slew the dragon?)

"The worst part is that I honestly think she believed she was doing her job—that her behavior was justified because I was foolish enough to just 'turn up' expecting to use 'her' collection."

She did more than her job, Dr. Gilman. She invited you up to her office with no appointment and helped you search the catalog. You did "turn up" expecting to use an unprocessed collection.

"Let this, then, serve as a gentle reminder to rare-book curators that your job is not to keep readers from your books but just the opposite: to facilitate readers' use of the collections. If altruism or professional integrity aren't sufficient motivators to get you to play nice, you might consider the fact that you have a job only because people want to read what's in those collections, and you will keep your job for only as long as readers feel welcome to approach you to make use of the materials."

This scathing diatribe is hardly a "gentle reminder," kind sir. I would venture to guess that with prior notification and an appointment, the librarian would have gone even more out of her way to help you.

As archivists and special collections librarians, we walk a tightrope between allowing you access to the collection today and preserving it for the Gilmans of tomorrow. I am acquainted with the hoarding dragons as well as with their diametrical opposites, those who would allow unfettered access to all original materials.

To those who want every document in every archives digitized and available online, I say, "had we but world enough, and time," and server space, and IT professionals, and unlimited staff, and appropriate equipment, etc., many archivists would gladly oblige. But we would still preserve the original documents for the use of your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who might not have access to computers, much less digital files. (If I offered you images on 5.25" floppy disks, could you open them at home tonight?)

I think most of us in libraries and archives care about both the resources AND the researcher. We try to bring them together safely and efficiently. Articles like Dr. Gilman's serve only to make my job harder and to reinforce negative stereotypes of librarians who don't want you touching the books. Yes, special collections have different rules and regulations because the items are SPECIAL for a reason.

Huh. Guess I didn't really find too many "pros" to point out, did I?


Colleen said...

Mental note made: do not be a jackass on this archivist's watch, for she will slay you with your own ineptitude and wild generalizations. *tips hat*

Laura said...

LOL! Thanks, Colleen!

Faceless Librarian said...

So let me get this straight... the guy is pissy because the librarian didn't allow him to just come in and rifle through papers, rare papers, that she's in charge of?

You know, I bet that if I just sort of show up at any museum without appointment or direction to just browse through their paper collection I bet I'd be turned away too. And with good reason since they don't allow some schmuck, even a librarian schmuck, to come and screw with their stuff!

Laura said...

Faceless, I believe you are correct. :)

Susan said...

"my eye fell upon a half-page advertisement inviting readers to visit 'the largest private collection of Handel memorabilia'"

From the original author's description of the advertisement, it's not clear whether the context for the ad implied visiting as in 1. seeing what is publicly on exhibition at the museum or 2. using materials for research purposes.

It *is* possible he misunderstood the intent of the ad.

Laura said...

Very true, Susan. Without seeing it, we don't know.

JBD said...

You said everything I wanted to say, but (mostly) held back in my own response to this article. Thanks!

Laura said...

Thanks for reading, JBD! Your response was one I had seen before writing mine. You were nicer. ;)

Linda Clark Benedict said...

Just thought I'd add that we NEVER let anyone browse the collection, even with an appointment. What would I do, follow him around to make sure he didn't razor out any pages?

Alone in the Archives

ryan said...

nice response. i hope mr. gilman reads it. i would love to see how his approach works out at, say, the beinecke (where his colleagues are no doubt having a good laugh about this) or perhaps on an unannounced return visit to the huntington.

Laura said...

In fact, Dr. Gilman has read it and sent me a response. I will post it shortly.