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How to be a library archive tourist

by Darius Kazemi, Jun 3, 2019

I travel a lot for work, and sometimes I travel to cities where I don't know a lot of people and there's not a lot of tourist stuff I want to do.

When I'm traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I'll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It's like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

I will sometimes mention this to people and they respond saying "Okay that sounds great but I wouldn't know where to even start." So this post outlines the nuts and bolts of setting up this kind of thing for yourself.

Broadly, the steps go:

Find some libraries

The first thing I do is I open Google Maps and do a search near whatever hotel I'm staying at for "library". In American cities this usually pulls up both public libraries and university libraries. (Most university libraries are completely open to the public, by the way; they are just often operated by private institutions and have a different mission than your typical American public library.)

At this point I'll do a branching narrative and first explain how this whole thing could work for a public library, and then for a university library.

For a public library

Usually for a public library you're looking at the website for the entire library system (probably on a county or city level) rather than a specific library.

Find the special collections

As an example let's take my local public library system, the Multnomah County Library. There's no obvious "special collections" link on that front page, but I typed "special collections" in the search bar and that pulled up a link to the John Wilson Special Collections. If we check out that page, we see that the collections are housed at the Central Library in downtown Portland, and are open certain days of the week. It also lists the history of the collection, as well as a bunch of general things you might find there. This page links to Featured Works, which gives us a peek at some of the stuff in the collection, as well as a list of special exhibits they have showing in the next six months.

Figure out what you want to see

Looking at that first page I might say, "Wow, I've never heard of Giovanni Battista Piranesi but his etchings look really cool and they have oversized books of them!"

A Piranesi etching, Carceri Plate XI – The Arch with a shell ornament

Check the rules

At this point I would click on the John Wilson Special Collections rules and procedures page and read their rules. Every special collection has special rules. Often you need to sign a waiver, you need to agree to not bring pens and other things that could harm the materials, sometimes you need to agree to wash your hands or wear gloves before handling the materials, and so on. It's always good to check these rules before contacting the library.

Make the appointment

On the Special Collections home page they list a phone number, so I would probably call that number and ask if I could see the Piranesi etchings on a certain day and time. If they ask why I'm interested, I tell them I'm an independent researcher who likes spending time in library archives and that is always good enough for them!

Some libraries have special forms you need to fill out to make an appointment. It varies, but there are usually clear instructions. If there are not clear instructions, you can always just contact the library's general help line and ask. Pro tip: LIBRARIANS LOVE PEOPLE WHO ASK FOR HELP.

For a university library

I'll use a local university, Portland State University, as my example here.

Find the special collections

If we go to their library website, we see a menu right at the top that says "Research Tools and Collections". Under that menu is an item that says "Special Collections and University Archives". If we click that link, we see a magic phrase: FINDING AID.

Figure out what you want to see

A finding aid is your best friend. It's a relatively comprehensive list, usually painstakingly manually compiled, of the different kinds of stuff you'll find in the special collections. If we click on the finding aid at that page above, we see a few different things listed, but let's stick with "Special Collections", which brings us to this page. At this point I just browse through and click around, kind of like I do on Wikipedia when I'm bored. One thing that catches my eye right now is "The International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite & Paper Mill Workers, 1934-1964" which... wow, okay! Clicking on that we see that it's "3.0 Linear Feet" of documents, meaning that if you stacked up all the paper documents they'd make a pile 3 feet high. There is an "Abstract" that says

The International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite & Paper Mills Workers (IBPS & PMW) materials contains bound volumes of the minutes and proceedings between the IBPS & PMW and the Pacific Coast Assocation of Pulp and Paper Manufacturers from 1934 - 1964. The collection is arranged chronologically into a single series.

Well sure. What the hell. Let's do this!

The next thing to note is that it is broken into three boxes of content, listed on the right hand side of that finding aid page. It's chronological, so if we click on Box 1 we get the records for 1934 to 1950. And then it just lists:

This is as granular as this finding aid gets. So we know that if we open up this box we'll get a total of 19 folders of documents spanning 26 years.

(Note that I don't even really know what the hell these meetings are or even what these organizations are! That's actually part of the fun of this activity. I'll do some research before going to the library so I have more context but it can be really fun (uhhh if you're like me) to just dig through this stuff haphazardly.)

Check the rules

A university library will also often have their special rules for handling their special collections on their website. The PSU library is no exception and has their own list of rules.

Make the appointment

This particular finding aid lets you add boxes to a "research cart" which is like a shopping cart on a website! If you click your cart you can "check out" and it leads you through the process of reserving time at the special collection.

Other finding aids don't have a fancy system like that, and instead you just need to write down the reference numbers for the boxes you want. Then you contact the collections librarian via email (there is always a contact form or email) and say, "Hi I'd like to look at Box 1 of the Pulp Sulphite and Paper Mill workers collection, it's ID number SC/2012.3". That ID number is helpful and was listed on the page for the collection.


In conclusion, libraries are awesome and usually have cool shit (for often mundane values of cool) and you can have a fun time going through it!!!!