10 Ways to Make the Curator’s Head Explode.
11 rules about what not to do when researching at a library or museum. (we’re not mathematicians)
Are you researching for that novel you want to write? Are you wanting to do some genealogy research? Looking to join the DAR? Or are you working on a project for school or work? Take some advice and do NOT do these.
1- Do NOT check the hours when the place is open.
3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday is not the best time to start a research project. Museums and libraries run a minimal staff on the weekends and they will not have the time or the patience to help you. Which means you will have set yourself up for a hearty disappointment. The best times to start a research project are usually Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday at 10am. This allows the staff to pull enough resources to get you started but does not interfere with the lunch time staff juggling that invariable occurs.
2- Do NOT call ahead. It’s not like we don’t have these nifty things called phones or anything?
Don’t walk in cold. Send an email or call up to a week in advance. This will allow the staff the opportunity to tell you the best time to come. Who knows, the staff member who is best suited to assist you may be on vacation? Calling ahead allows the staff time to schedule everybody around the other activities going on at the institution. It also allows the staff to make you aware of any research policies. In some places, you have to submit a written request and wait for a committee to approve or deny your request.
3- Have NO idea what you want or what you are looking for.
Pre-game your visit and be as specific as possible. Do some preliminary research. Check out what types of materials are available at the institution you are planning to visit. If a museum or library focuses on the Revolutionary Era, do not go in asking for information on the Civil War. It won’t get you very far and you will only succeed in making everybody frustrated and disappointed, yourself most of all.
4- Come unprepared. Forget the PENCIL & Paper.
Bring pencil and paper, no ink allowed. No, your fancy scanner and laptop will not always be allowed in the research areas. Ask first! Otherwise, your phone, technology, and bags should be stowed in the designated area. Take into consideration that there are some sources that you will not be allowed to make photocopies.
5- Have no idea how to take notes.
Bring back those awesome memories of high school or college? Those note taking skills are going to come in real handy for those items you can’t make photocopies.
6- Do NOT follow instructions.
Each research room will have special instructions for that proper handling of materials. You will be provided with cotton or nitrile gloves if necessary. Use them! If using images in a project, check out the institutions image use policies. These are how they try to manage and avoid copyright infringement. You do not want to get mixed up in that kind of legal problem.
7- Preservation schmeservation.
The first goal of all staff is the preservation of the items. Museums and libraries want to share and show off all the cool stuff they have but some items are just too fragile. It will not matter how much you insist, if the staff has determined a piece should not be handled, then they will not make an exception. They may provide you with alternate methods of access, digital or otherwise. Be gracious and move on. If needed, refer back to rule #6.
8- Be rude.
By all means the passive aggressive manipulation isn’t something we are at all familiar with. You may not see all the work that goes in to helping a researcher but it can be extremely time consuming. So, be nice. If you are fun to work with then the staff assisting you is more likely to spend more time digging around for information for you. And remember, poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on ours.
9- Believe that the staff has no idea what they are talking about.
Trust the staff. They have spent a lot of time with their collection and resources. They spend a lot of time studying the subject of their institutions. Whatever your research request, they have probably heard it before and helped someone with a similar project. 9 times out of 10 they already have information collected that will answer your questions. They do know what they are talking about. If you stump them with your research request, then good for you! Trust that the staff will be curious and will want to help you find the answer. We don’t get degrees in history, museum studies, archives, etc. without having an insatiable curiosity. We love to research. We love learning something new. And no, we are not trying to steal your idea for a that book you are writing.
10- Demand it in digital form and to be emailed to you.
The age of digitization is slow in coming. Museums and libraries are notoriously underfunded. While many institutions have digitization projects in the works, these things are slow and tedious. It takes a lot of man hours, (usually supplied by volunteers) to get something properly scanned and formatted and inventoried and associated with all the pertinent metadata to the point where it is then useful to researchers. If the source material is in hard copy then expect to take notes. In some cases you may have photocopies, but do not request the material in a digitized form. If the staff offers to add it to the queue of items to be digitized then awesome. But remember, it will take time. Be patient.
11- Will work for FREE! Nope. #SorryNotSorry
Again, museums and libraries are notoriously underfunded. No, the staff will not do your research for you. The staff is there to assist, to help, and to guide you in your research endeavors. Doing your research is not what they get paid to do. There are professional researchers and groups (like genealogy groups) that you can hire but you will pay a lot of money for this service, so be forewarned. You should always plan on leaving a healthy donation in addition to paying for any and all photocopies, even if the staff only spent an hour with you.