As I’ve said before, I used to do curatorial work at a Lincoln/Civil War museum. The collection was large and had a lot of first-rate material, including a substantial amount of archival matter. At the same time, though, it had a small staff, and if you work at a small museum you wear a lot of hats. This combination of an extensive and significant collection with a small institution meant that I got some fantastic public history experience. I tried a little of everything.
One of the things I got to try was archival work. I’m not a professional archivist, not by any means. For a short time, though, our museum was without a full-time archival manager. During that interval, I got to fill in as a sort of substitute archivist, in addition to performing my other duties.
That period taught me a lot of things that came in handy when I went on to do research of my own in other collections. It’s much easier to navigate a manuscript collection when you’ve seen firsthand how they’re organized and maintained.
And I got to see how different types of researchers behave. On the one hand, I got to work with some first-rate historians. I got to help them assemble the material that went into their articles and books, and it was an absolute blast.
On the other hand, I got to deal with researchers who provided me with negative examples. I could fill several posts with these experiences, and I might do so. For the present, though, let me focus on the most irritating class of specimen I encountered. I like to call this type the “Unannounced Guest.”
You can spot these folks from a mile away. They show up at your institution unannounced, without calling, e-mailing, or writing before they drive miles and miles to access your collection.
When they arrive, they’re like wide-eyed kids in the wilderness. They don’t know what they’re looking for. They can’t articulate the scope of their research, and it becomes obvious that they aren’t familiar with your holdings. They can’t explain what they want, and they don’t know whether or not you’ve got it. You end up doing most of the legwork for them, trying to sort through vast amounts of material in search of…well, you’re never exactly sure what.
They’re almost guaranteed to be totally unfamiliar with the institution’s research and duplication policies. All this is available online, of course, or could be obtained by contacting the place ahead of time. But they walk in cold, completely bewildered, and utterly unprepared.
In short, they’re wasting both your time and their own. They’re broadcasting the fact that they’re either not serious about what they’re doing, or that they’re not competent to do it.
Ladies and gents, take this advice from somebody who’s been on both sides of the vault door. In this day and age, you can easily get online and access contact information, hours, policies, and a description of holdings for most repositories. There is simply no reason for any researcher to walk into an institution unheralded, without any notion of what’s there or how to find it.
Collection custodians are professionals, and they’re usually overworked. Nothing will infuriate them like showing up out of the blue and throwing their entire working day out of kilter. (Even a simple phone call a few hours ahead of time can make a world of difference to a busy archivist.) And nothing will convince them that you don’t have any business handling the materials in their charge like coming across as an inconsiderate doofus.
Your level of preparation isn’t just important to the archivist, though. If you’re serious about research, it should be important to you, too. There is so much to read, so much to digest, so much to consult, but your time in the collection is finite. You’ve got to make the most of it. You can’t afford to squander it on a wild goose chase through an entire institution’s holdings.
Your time as a researcher and the archivist’s time as a professional are very precious, limited commodities. Use them both wisely.