Research Requests in an Archive

One of my duties is to answer reference questions from researchers. Unlike in a library setting, reference in an archive does not have the reference interview that I was taught about in school.

This would mainly be discussing the reference question with the patron until you understand exactly what they are looking for and how to help them find it. In library school, I had a course on reference and one of the big things was the reference interview. This is one of those aspects of being a librarian that is not anticipated to change with the advance of digital aspects of libraries as it can be done in person, on the phone, by email, text or chat.

A main aspect of this is making sure that you know what the patron is looking for. This can sometimes be complicated as the manner of providing an answer depends on the level/type of patron asking the question. For example, in an academic library or as a children’s librarian, often part of answering the reference request is teaching the patron how to find the answer on their own.  So when a patron asks, “Do you have a copy of Harry Potter?” You would ask, “Do you know how to use our catalog? Look along while I search, so that next time you can search for it yourself if you want to.” This was used on me when I asked a sample question using my libraries ask by chat service for an assignment. One of the first questions was, “Are you a student? Where? Did you know that they have a database system? You can find it here and…”

However in an archive setting reference questions do not really follow this format. In the archive where I work, we receive reference questions via snail mail and email. Some researchers just want us to answer a question and send them the relevant information or material and others want us to collect the materials so they can visit and look through them on their own.

No researcher visits the archive prior to asking as we are a by-appointment archive. This allows us to schedule appointments for the researcher to be interviewed so that they can sign necessary form and be told about our rules and policies. They are then led to the reading room where the material that they requested when they scheduled a visit is waiting for them.

The reference questions that I have been answering are from researchers who do not want to visit the archive. They just want me to find the information/material that they are looking for and send them a copy. One such request was for a photo of a trustee, another was for verification of a purchase of a tea set.

These do not seem to be such complicated requests but sometimes appearances can be deceiving.  Especially since, like many archiving we do not have such a great tool for searching the collection. Generally the digital search tool will result in an area to look but it may not include all of the possible locations for the materials.

The requested photo of the trustee required me to look through five different possible locations. After almost giving up I finally found one mediocre picture. Soon after though, my supervisor had a brainstorm and I found a whole folder full of photos that are much better quality. This took several days of searching. But when I sent the information to the researcher, she was very happy and requested a high quality copy of the photo that she liked best.

The request for purchase information of the tea set also was slightly complicated. I looked through letters from the owner of the tea set to her frequent shopper with no luck. I looked through books cataloging the belongings of the owner, no luck. Finally I looked through letters from the shopper and found her reference to the purchase of the tea set. It was two lines in a long letter. I was very pleased to have found it and the researcher was very pleased with the information.

I find that this kind of reference is a lot of fun. It is like a treasure hunt. I don’t always know if we have the requested information or materials and that makes it more interesting. I get to look through all kinds of materials that I would never have even known existed had I not been answering this request. Best of all is when I find the requested material after a difficult search. This is only one of the reasons that I love working in the archive.


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