Into the Wild

How do you gain access to a private library? This post is about a particular archival adventure I had in 2011, and offers some tips to readers on how to track down and gain access (or at least try!) to archival holdings in private libraries.

My editors for the English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800 (see: The Genuine Article) wanted to include the original text of some letters located at a convent in Gloucestershire. One editor had seen modernized versions of the letters, and hoped (and assumed) the originals were held at the convent, too. Before embarking for the convent, I wrote to the nuns (by snail mail) to ask if they did indeed have the originals. They did not. The modernized copies had been sent from a distant relative of the original sender (Clare Conyers (1749-1833) to the nuns of Much Birch in 1952. I did not have high hopes of finding the modernizer-genealogist alive.

However, I traced the sender’s name on the National Archives website. Luckily, he or one of his descendants had registered their collection of family papers with the NA. The NA archivist had a note on file with contact details for the current owner of Clare Conyers’ original letters. As luck would have it, Mr Y, the present owner, lives a twenty minute walk from my home.

After an exchange of letters, including a recommendation from my supervisor, I visited Mr Y. He graciously allowed me to photograph the papers, and I was able to work on them at home and check my transcriptions (obsessively!). The NA archivist saved the day and it was a win-win for all involved. Mr Y has the satisfaction of knowing some fraction of his ancestors’ papers are in print; the printed volumes are richer for having Clare’s original spellings and punctuation; and I had a serious archival adventure right in my own backyard!

As far as methodology or advice for gaining access to original archives, this is what I learned:

1) As a general rule—and this goes for big repositories as well as for small ones—contact the archivist or librarian in charge before you embark on an (expensive, travel-intensive) archival trip, and ensure that the items you believe to be there are, indeed, there. Things can be taken away for restoration, sent on loan to another institution for use in an exhibit or even lost or stolen. It’s always worth checking your sources are what and where you want them to be, before you get there. Take this from the woman who has spent hours in the wrong archive in Brussels (and Antwerp. . .) asking the poor librarians why the microfilm reels she’s called up contain fifteenth century deeds, and not seventeenth century convent chronicles. . .only to discover that the archive she needs is the one around the corner, and it is closing—at the precise moment she realizes her error—for several months for an epic refurbishment. Sigh.

2) If you’re trying to hunt for the current whereabouts of some archival material and you have any leads on previous owners (provenance information), plug that into the National Archives database and/or consult the printed Historical Manuscripts Commission volumes to see what turns up. The NA archivists are very helpful in general, and they also have some contact details on file pertaining to the whereabouts of private collections, which are not listed on the website.

3) When you write to a private owner of archival material provide them with a concise outline of your research and a clear statement about why you would like to consult their holdings. Indicate the intended publication outlet for your work, if any. Explain the potential value of your work and indicate your intended audience–undergrads? lay folks? fellow specialists? Ask for permission to photograph the items you intend to work with. This does not give you carte blanche to send the images around to whoever you like, but to work on them in your own time.

4) Providing a letter of recommendation from your supervisor, editor or employer will reassure the owner that you’re legitimate and not a manuscript thief.

5) Remember: much though you might want to see an archive, it is entirely at the discretion of the owner and contingent on their availability. They have no obligation to grant you access.

6) If you are granted access, bring a gift. Even if you have to pay a nominal fee to use the archive, bring a token of your thanks. It sounds a little hokey, but I always do this when I visit a small institution or a privately held collection. Most private owners are not librarians and do not hire their own librarian (though some do), and they are making time for your work. For instance, knowing my visit would occupy most of Mr Y’s morning (and knowing nothing of his tastes), I brought him a basket of slightly exotic, white-fleshed, flat peaches. He seemed delighted. Because I’m a little over-cautious I avoid bringing alcohol or foods with a strong allergen risks, in case the owner of the archive has a problem with these.

7) Leave the archive as tidy as you found it. If you see anything that can damage the materials (e.g. paper clips), and that can be easily removed, ask the owner if you can do so and explain that this extends the life of their materials.

8) After your visit, send a note of thanks.

9) If and when you publish your findings, acknowledge the owner in a note or in the acknowledgements section.

10) Send them a copy of the piece or just the portion in which their materials feature. This is a nice thing for them to read, and a very useful thing to have on file for researchers of the future. And who knows, maybe someone down the centuries will want to study the habits of researchers using small, privately-owned collections. . .you can dream, right?

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