Sunday, May 02, 2010

From The Chronicle: "A Gentle Reminder to Special Collections Librarians"

"A Gentle Reminder to Special Collections Librarians" is not for the many friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable Special Collections librarians out there. No, it's for the ones who look at you as though you are standing there with matches and a can of gasoline if you ask to see an item. It's by a Yale Special Collections librarian, Todd Gilman, who was not able to see a collection he was both knowledgeable about and interested in because it was guarded by Cerberus a librarian who "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." He adds this as the lesson:
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.
I've had both kinds of treatment (mostly good) in visits to archives, but I always assumed that the few instances of bad treatment occurred because I was not one of the Elect in whatever way the local librarian chose to define it.

Have you found helpful librarians, or is Todd Gilman's experience more universal than not?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I have mostly found helpful librarians (I work in the Anglo-American world, so can't speak for Continental libraries). The Rare Books person at LRU is especially wonderful about encouraging students and the public to come and enjoy what we have on offer. I'm usually very good about contacting people in advance and bringing letters of recommendation with me, which no doubt helps; but once when I was going to work at the Brotherton Library (U of Leeds) all my e-mails went astray. I got a local scholar to have a word with the librarian a couple of days before I went in, and the MS I wanted was brought right up for me, no bother, even though as far as the person at the desk was concerned, I was just walking in off the street.

I never expect good treatment, though; I always expect Gorgons to demand that I perform impossible tasks before I'll be allowed to marry the princess, I mean look at the books. It's the anxiety of influence, or something.

Anonymous said...

I've always had good experiences with librarians, so I guess I am lucky or among the elect?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gilman showed up unprepared and apparently with an air of entitlement. Given his research-librarian background he should have known better, or at least should not have been surprised at how he was received.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

I've had mostly good experiences -- but there was one memorably bad time at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown U., which is one of the most unwelcoming, dark, dank, and friendless places I've ever had the misfortune of working. Burrrrr.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I've been fortunate in finding very helpful librarians/archivists, though I've never needed to request entry to anything unusually obscure. A friend of mine once requested access to a collection that she knew contained particular documents of interest; the librarian, with great condescension, said "I don't think we have what you want, but let me go check..." She left the room, whispers and chuckles were heard from the next room, and she returned and said "No, I'm sorry, we don't have anything related to your topic." The documents were in fact part of the collection, but my friend never did figure out how to get in. In some places it depends on the day and the mood you catch people in.

undine said...

Dame Eleanor, that made me laugh (Gorgons)! I keep getting conflicting messages about contacting people ahead of time. I email the research library and then get a message back saying, "There's no need to contact us ahead of time."

Profacero, you must be among the elect! Seriously, most of my experiences have been good, too.

undine said...

Anonymous, that's true, but apparently there was some advertisement welcoming people to visit the collection.

Bittersweet Girl, I'm sorry to hear that, both for your experience and for my future plans to go there.

Pilgrim/Heretic--That's just wrong. That makes going to the archives like going to the DMV, except for the extra helping of condescension at the archives.