• September 2, 2015

A Gentle Reminder to Special-Collections Curators

Library Illustration Dragon Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

"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."

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

"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."

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

And so the dragon succeeded in guarding the hoard.

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.

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.

Todd Gilman is librarian for literature in English at Yale University Library and a part-time instructor for library schools at San Jose State University and Wayne State University as well as for the journalism department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


1. 11194062 - April 30, 2010 at 06:47 am

Thank you for this article! Now can we send a link to every special-collections librarian in the world?

2. johnjay - April 30, 2010 at 10:23 am

The problem in this scenario is the ad that was placed in the program. Why anyone would have rubber-stamped that ad and make it seem like a drop-in opportunity is a mystery. Most special collections are not walk-in and browse situations and for good reason. Staffing shortages aside (everyone suffers from that), much of what is housed in special collections is there because it needs to be taken care of which is very hard to do if people are handling it willy-nilly any old day of the week. As a librarian and researcher, Todd should not have been surprised or even dismayed that his pop-in was unwelcome. Today's immediate gratification culture does not apply to everything. Most special collections librarians are thrilled to have you come and visit them with just a little tiny bit of forethought and some very simply steps to follow. The ad should have included that information.

3. jay_satterfield - April 30, 2010 at 10:39 am

It is a shame that articles like this one still need to be written. Most people I know in the field are doing everything they can to get people into Special Collections and working to get the materials into the hands of students, researchers and the public to create meaningful experiences with the stuff (not "our" stuff--it is theirs). In a college setting, that usually means getting special collections integrated into the curriculum. That is more than just show and tell sessions, in fact it means leaving those in the past and having classes work directly with the materials. Beyond that, we try to create reading room and copy policies that allow the students to have a great time working on their assignments, while fostering a buzz on campus with outreach tools like our blogs (http://raunerlibrary.blogspot.com/). We tell people we are the coolest spot on campus, and a lot of our students would agree. That would not have been the case in the past--but the profession as a whole is changing, one library at a time.

Jay Satterfield
Special Collections Librarian
Dartmouth College Library

4. 22284568 - April 30, 2010 at 10:57 am

I have to say that some librarians, not necessary only in Special Collections, perceive collections as "their" possession and feel very uncomfortable when others need to use them.

5. 42zing - April 30, 2010 at 11:06 am

The author, and others, ought to examine the access policies and librarian attitudes regarding walk-in users at their own elitist institutions.

6. azfaculty - April 30, 2010 at 11:24 am

I applaud this article, as a user of Special Collections who also teaches graduate students to do the same. I add that when the Special Collections are in another country, and there language differences and dislike for people from the United States, the situation gets worse: the guardian sees him or herself as protecting the nation.

I work regularly with a collection that is guarded by an archivist who supplements his income by periodically printing books, subsidized by his national government, full of factual errors, that are based on the "nationally important" items in his care. You can imagine how thrilled (NOT!) he is to see me. Moreover, he and his compatriots read my published work, and use it, but without citing me.

I went back to graduate school (in information and archives) in part to learn how to deal with this situation and I would love to read an article about how best to deal with Special Collections Librarians and Archivists in other countries.

Thanks, Todd, your articles are always the greatest!

7. bookwormz - April 30, 2010 at 11:33 am

Have to chuckle at bit, though, since I received similar treatment on a visit to the Beinecke at Yale last year. After having repeated e-mails and phone calls to the curator ignored, and requests for confirmations that a collection could be made available (I did check the catalog, I did have the collection, box and folder numbers in hand)I showed up, with my 16 year old daughter in tow. She was doing original research for her History Day project. At first, I was told that we would not be allowed access because my daughter was under 18. Then, after I told the ref desk staff (in a loud tone of voice) that my repeated inquiries for permission to access had been ignored, a secret meeting occured, at which the decision was made that my daughter could use the collection, but only under my direct supervision. I'm a librarian, and an archivist, and my daughter virtually grew up in the library I directed when she was a tot. The only thing that didn't occur during that visit was a strip search.

8. libct - April 30, 2010 at 11:59 am

Arghh!!! I agree with Jay that the trend in Special Collections & Archives is to provide students and researchers with as much access as possible. At Wesleyan, Suzy Taraba and her staff work intensively with faculty and students to design assignments and projects around rare books and archival materials, and also welcome outside researchers.

But even one experience like the one described in this article reinforces the negative stereotype of librarians and archivists as possessive and difficult. It is important--if sometimes difficult--to balance our responsibility to preserve rare and unique collections with that of providing access to students, researchers and visitors.

Pat Tully, University Librarian
Wesleyan University
Middletown, Connecticut

9. archives2010 - April 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Archivists and Special Collections Librarians are charged with a dual mission---first, of making collections accessible and usable, and second, of preserving these materials for now and the future. Many of our items are carefully stored, often not all together, depending on size. Many collections are just simply not browsable. Which is why we like appointments, as well as knowing what exactly you want. One of my collections has 774 boxes of papers--I need to know what you want as don't have room to get out all 774 boxes. I do everything I can to help researchers but Special Collections and Archives *ARE* different and unfortunately too many researches see our care in handling materials as personal affronts or obstacles. The student who asks me why I can't put everything we have on the American Civil War on the table in front of them (when I'd need a moving van) assumes I'm being difficult. So while my sympathy is with the writer of the article, I fully understand why the staff member tried to explain the need for appointments and what the person was after.

Dean DeBolt, University Librarian
Special Collections, University of West Florida, Pensacola

10. spindry - April 30, 2010 at 05:37 pm

I can see the good and the bad in Todd's article. We tend to inflate news reporting of one incident into an indicator that all special collections librarians are the same. Chronicle editors might have considered whether this is really emblematic or simply a bad day on someone's part. The good news is that through advertisement this archive attempted an outreach strategy that was successful! It's too bad there was a disconnect between the outreach and the actual service available at that moment. This article was forwarded to me by a member of our faculty who added “I am regularly thankful that it does NOT describe your staff!” Me too! But keeping quality services going in the current environment is very challenging, and this kind of press doesn't help! More success stories please....

11. jzoly - April 30, 2010 at 10:47 pm

I just finished reading "The Island of Lost Maps" by Miles Harvey. In it he recounts so many cases of map and document stealing from University libraries, archives and museums. It gave me much more appreciation for the hoops that one has to jump through to get access to materials. On the other hand when I was researching in Germany in the late 80's all it took for me to get access to the 18th c. sources I needed was a letter of introduction sent in advance. Each day they would deliver stacks of concerto manuscripts to my table for me to poor over. They even gave me access to another room to take them to play through.

12. jbdibbell - May 01, 2010 at 08:14 am

It seems slightly unfair of Mr. Gilman to have assumed that he would simply be allowed to visit the library and browse the shelves. I know of no special collections library that allows this (especially in these times, after the recent spate of thefts from institutions around the world).

Also, it's clear from the article that he's referring to the Foundling Museum. Their website on the George Coke Handel Research Library states, very clearly, "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." Research purposes by appointment. Is this an unreasonable policy?

While I'm sorry that Mr. Gilman didn't have the kind of experience he would have preferred (and while I think it IS important for those of us who work with rare books and special collections to make every effort to ensure that those who visit get to consult the materials they need), taking this approach to criticizing the library seems rather on the extreme side.

Jeremy B. Dibbell
Assistant Reference Librarian
Massachusetts Historical Society

13. giena08 - May 01, 2010 at 11:31 am

The issue here is granting access appropriately but also maintaining the security of the collection, as noted by Jeremy Dibbell. There has to be a balance, and the lack of understanding of this displayed in the article means that, perhaps, more education needs to be devoted to the topic. But I have to say, even the worst example as described by Mr. Gilman has nothing on some of the European libraries I've visited (Bibliotheque nationale in Paris being one of the most notorious for capricious behavior on the part of curators/librarians). But studying materials in those collections is different. Unfortunately, the Europeans understand the value of their own written history, and don't approach it from a perspective of "see! we ARE relevant"--the approach American libraries are forced to take in a culture that doesn't appreciate history (it's own or any other) enough to endow the study of it with any regularity. Thus we have the come hither-push away model of advertising resources, and it isn't fair to the patrons or the librarians.

14. mbelvadi - May 01, 2010 at 02:37 pm

How often do researchers like this one actually need to handle the original material itself (e.g. are studying the parchment etc. itself)? If more special collections librarians/archivists realized the importance of digitizing their collections, and making them freely available on the Internet rather than selling the rights to some for-profit company, they might find they get far fewer requests to touch their precious babies.

Most Western governments as well as private organizations have made plenty of money available to help with such digitization projects The failure of so many to take advantage of these opportunities raises a question for those above who argue that the archivists have a legitimate preservation motivation, because careful non-destructive open access digitization is clearly in the interest of preservation.

What digitization does undermine is the ability of the special library to charge money for access, to require researchers to sign outrageously restrictive use agreements that are far beyond the bounds of anything copyright or any other law might require, to demand unreasonable photocopying charges that are well beyond cost recovery, and to otherwise profit (sometimes personally as one commenter described anecdotally) from their localized monopoly on control of the physical originals.

Many researchers see this assertion of absolute right of control over the use of these documents as an illegitimate exercise of the power of physical possession, as if the curators are claiming rights equal to those reserved under copyright law for the original creators of the content.

Kudos to those many librarians/archivists who DO digitize their collections for the public benefit!

15. amnirov - May 02, 2010 at 07:53 am

I have seen far more "bad" readers than "bad" special collection librarians. Like the guy who did not choose to bathe his organs of generation for at least a week before entering the students' room at the old British Library, or the well-meaning soul who nevertheless dropped a 1000 year old book directly on its spine, or the moron who took up three reading stations by spreading out his idiotic research as if he owned the world, or the clown who saw a certain document before I did and ruined a certain part of it with ham fisted clumsiness, or how about the person--sometime after the collection was last catalogued--who cut out all manner of illustration. That person gets around and I have seen his handiwork in perhaps a dozen libraries. I could go on and on and on.

Librarians have to safeguard collections against willful and oblivious idiots, and a huge majority of scholars are in the habit of believing that their petty and unimportant research is somehow world changing. So yeah, sometimes one will face an unpleasant librarian, but for heaven's sakes, if I am going to choose between scholar X's project on canapes and other savory appetizers in the court of George II and safeguarding the papers of freaking Handel, I know on whose side my ballot will be cast.

Write at least six months in advance. Be clear about what you want to see. Bring your ID. Do NOT bring your precious and precocious children. For that matter, don't bring a camera or a pen. Know the etiquette of special collections.

16. performance_expert - May 02, 2010 at 08:37 am

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17. asongbird - May 02, 2010 at 09:07 am

Boy. Do we have "war stories" to share here! Suffice to say THANK YOU for this article. We might have been on the same research trips all these years. Sorry to say.

Yes. I second the motion: we need to send this to every special-collections librarian in this country, to start...for sure.

18. realist123 - May 02, 2010 at 09:08 am

Thanks for this article Todd! In this time of budget crunches, libraries, including special collections, are finding it necessary to justify their existence... Like other academic units, they too must defend their social role and play the fundraising game -- like this clever ad in a concert program... However, as you have pointed out, they often do not deliver access to the vitally important knowledge they claim to hold. The money often goes to digitize the collections, so that no one will actually ever be able to touch the real objects... Or in some cases, what is worse, money goes to cataloguing the collection. Rarely however, is money raised in fundraising campaigns really targeted at serving the public, or granting access to scholars.

19. performance_expert - May 02, 2010 at 09:18 am

The program advertisement indicates "office hours for you to stop by and meet who you are donating money to."

20. fffrobenius - May 02, 2010 at 11:14 am

Karma, Schadenfreude...
A visitor from Yale, one of the most restrictive and elitist organizations in the world, finds that he is unable to freely access whatever he wants in someone else's colleciton. Cry me a river.

21. performance_expert - May 03, 2010 at 05:30 am

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22. louisie - May 03, 2010 at 10:08 am


Actually, an increasing number of special collections libraries and/or archives are alllowing or even encouraging the use of digital cameras.

I've used a digital camera (without using the flash component) with special collections materials at Harvard's Schlesinger Library, Duke's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, and Harvard's Pusey Library/University Archives. The first time I was granted permission to do so, it was astounding how much my research protocols changed - not only did I have notes to go by, I now had digital images to use as both back-up and for further reference if I had additional questions.

To those special collections librarians out there who do a fantastic job (and I've been lucky to come across quite a few in my research), THANK YOU!

23. mrbobdobalina - May 03, 2010 at 10:59 am

Your icy reception, if accurately related here, is unfortunate. However, did you really expect to be let loose in a restricted stack area to just have a look? A seasoned researcher and librarian like yourself should know that special collections do not generally offer this sort of access. If you wanted to, as you say, "see what is there," then the online catalog _is_ the best place to start. It would have easily collocated the pieces for you.

I don't think it is standard protocal for librarians to invite patrons back to their offices and allow them to search the catalog on their computer. However, it is a shame that this curator didn't have the time to take you to a public terminal and show you what you needed to do in order to request materials, once you had identified them. But it is also a shame that you, being a librarian, couldn't do this on your own.

So what if you have credentials? So did Mr. Blumberg, one of the most notorious book thieves of the modern era. These policies are in place to _protect_ the materials. You should applaud them. Next time, should you set out with a focused research query, you may be quite pleased with the results.

24. mackie1861 - May 03, 2010 at 11:00 am

Someone should put together a blog or website for researchers going to special collections: is the library "user friendly"?; how much are photocopies per page?; are there places to eat nearby?; how much is lodging?; does the institution provide fellowships and if so, how easy are they to get?.... I think it would be especially helpful to people on a budget or visiting from far away.

25. facultydiva - May 03, 2010 at 04:00 pm

Someone took out an ad to publicize the collection and invite the public (or at least those who bought the concert program) to view the collection. If that was done without the collection's knowledge, then shame on whoever approved the ad. Like Mr. Gilman, I take that as an extraordinary invitation and if that was my area of interest I too would make a special, impromptu visit. Had the curator said "I'm sorry, I wasn't aware that this opportunity was offered," Mr. Gilman might have been more sympathetic.

26. superstarchivist - May 04, 2010 at 08:46 am

My own response was too long to post here (see http://superstarchivist.blogspot.com/2010/05/not-so-gentle-reminder-to-special.html). As a university archivist and head of special collections, I am responsible for balancing access to and preservation of our rare and unique materials. Yes, I want to share them, but I need to do so appropriately. I am sorry Dr. Gilman did not get the treatment he felt he deserved, but I applaud the librarian who went out of her way (IMHO) to help him.

27. scjones - May 04, 2010 at 11:18 am

To comment by: bookwormz - April 30, 2010 at 11:33 am,

While I am always eager to hear of research experiences at Beinecke Library, positive or negative (that's how we improve), I take strong issue with bookwormz characterization of his/her visit to Beinecke with "daughter in tow." The collections in Beinecke are readily available to the Yale community as well as to visiting scholars and researchers. Undergraduates from other colleges and universities and high school students are required to bring letters of introduction, as our online documentation indicates. If someone in those categories does simply show up, and I realize bookwormz tried to contact the Library in advance, we make a decision on the spot. The fact is, bookwormz and his/her daughter apparently did use material in accordance with our policy for pre-college age users -- under supervision of a parent or guardian. Here is where my issues come in to play: At no time do we hold "secret" meetings and I found the "strip search" comment uncalled for. We hardly present ourselves so rigidly and such rhetoric serves no constructive purpose. I am confident in Beinecke Library's solid reputation as a productive and rewarding library to conduct research in. I would be happy to correspond with bookwormz further by email but felt the need to comment directly to this site. After working here 33 years I've grown attached to Beinecke and the level of reader services we provide. Bookwormz, I invite you to email me at stephen.jones@yale.edu . Thank you.

28. captain_e_o - May 04, 2010 at 01:16 pm

Mr. Gilman. As an experiment, why don't you take a walk over to the Beinecke (don't bother making any superflous appointments) and ask if you can browse the incunabula? Maybe try the same on an unannounced return visit to the Huntington. I'd love to hear how that goes.

I think your sneering curator actually WENT OUT OF HER WAY to help you by bringing you back to her office and trying to find something--anything--for you to look at. Think about it. You're a research librarian. Do you provide that level of service on the spot to every student who drops by?

29. martha_davidson - May 05, 2010 at 09:05 am

The suggestion that Western governments have offered plenty of money to put collections online is amusing. At my already-understaffed, struggling public television station, already consumed with the business of keeping programming on the air, we devoted a massive amount of research, time and effort trying to get funding to preserve and eventually digitize our archival film and videotape dating back to the early 1960s. Much of this was one-of-a-kind material about our state's history and people. A handful of us believed it was important to preserve these artifacts of our culture and persuaded management to let us take time away from the multitude of other pressing tasks at hand. Management took a chance, and let us devote the time and money to trying for a federal grant. Ultimately, after jumping through all of the hoops, we failed -- even with the help of a well-paid, professional fundraising consultant team. The lesson we took away: Don't bother... Now, all of that material is moldering away in the non-climate-controlled basement.

30. kittybware - May 05, 2010 at 04:48 pm

Special collections need to be preserved and accessible. A special collection is not just a warehouse of unique and interesting items. To make these items meaningful, librarians have to provide access to them. Digitization is the ideal way to accomplish this -- no dirty fingerprints or stolen pages, but until items can be digitized, they should be as available as possible.

Also, not all special librarians/archivists are strict gatekeepers. When I was working on my MLS, I went to Notre Dame to find some materials. While there, I saw the special collection room. I went inside and started to talk to the librarian working there, no notice or appointment. She told me to browse to my heart's content and let her know if I wanted to see anything. She also asked if I had ever handled a rare book -- I had not. She retrieved some gloves and other goods and asked me to pick a book. She took the time to show me the proper method for handling rare, fragile books. If you want people to use and support your library, you must value their 'business' and treat them accordingly.

31. kchristi - May 08, 2010 at 09:24 am

Believe me, mbelvadi, research libraries fully realize the importance of digitizing collections! The problem is that the process is incredibly expensive, and very few grants are available for these projects (relative to the immense collections that need digitization). I work for an independent research library that is free and open to the public, no credentials or admission fees required. But I don't know of ANY research libraries who are "profiting" by anything they do--we scrimp and scrabble to keep the doors open and the collections preserved. "Cost recovery" consists of more than the price of a photocopy--somehow the staff has to be (under)paid, the electricity bills paid, the climate and humidity controls that keep old and fragile materials from deteriorating maintained, etc., etc.

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