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  • Laura Bray

Tips for Using Reading Rooms at Archives

The Reading Room at the Briscoe Center for American History

Reading rooms at archives are a marvelous venue for research. I recently visited the Briscoe Center for American History. Here’s a video about my visit.

Reading rooms are attached to major archives and libraries (such as the Briscoe Center or Library of Congress) so you can use their materials on-site (materials are rarely available to “check-out” like your hometown library). Here are a few tips I’ve learned during my research:

  • An archive’s holdings are often available online. Their website will tell you where and how to access it. Spend time at home figuring out what materials you want to review. Don’t waste your precious (and limited) time in the Reading Room deciding what materials you need. If you can’t find the archive catalog online, email them to ask how you can access it.

  • At the Library of Congress (a fabulous resource for genealogical materials), you must first obtain—in person—a Reader Registration card. Find more details here.

  • Most archives have very specific rules about what you can and cannot bring into the Reading Room. These guidelines are generally available on their websites. Carefully review these guidelines and prepare what you bring accordingly. Reading rooms usually provide lockers (or in the case of the Library of Congress, a cloakroom) to store your excess goods.

  • Reading Rooms also often have specific rules about what photographs you can take and how and where you can use them. For example, the Library of Congress does not allow you to take or post your own photos of their iconic Reading Room. (I found the photo in the video online.)

  • Once you arrive at the Reading Room, you will ask the archivists to bring you the materials you’ve identified and submitted a request for. I took extensive photos of the materials I consulted. Most Reading Rooms have large-format scanners that will quickly scan pages of interest; bring a thumbdrive to store these scans. Photocopying services may be available for a fee.

  • Make sure to comply with their rules about protecting their materials. When I skimmed through the 90-year-old science fiction book at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M, they asked that I keep the book in a spine protector. Archivists might also ask you to use cloth gloves.

  • Archives are often located on university campuses, where parking is notoriously difficult. (It’s no easier at the Library of Congress, but at least there’s a nearby Metro stop.) Plan accordingly. Hint: avoid college campuses around graduation time.

  • Speaking of planning: you won’t be able to bring food or water into the Reading Room. Sometimes water fountains are available, other time not. Restrooms may not be close by, and you may not want to leave your laptop/other items unattended while you visit them. When I wanted a lunch break at the Library of Congress, I packed up all my stuff and came back later. Since the Reading Room wasn’t busy at the time, the archivists were kind enough to keep my requested books behind the desk, so I could retrieve them after lunch.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my times in the three Reading Rooms I’ve visited, and I’ve learned a lot—including adding an entire branch of the family tree to my genealogy records at the Library of Congress. And it gave me a real thrill to walk down the hall labeled “For Researchers Only.” I hope you, too, have the opportunity to use these resources.

That’s all she wrote……Laura

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