Library Etiquette, Part 2

As the summer research season starts kicking up into full swing, I thought I would first, refer you to my Post entitled Library Etiquette, on “pre-visitation” to an archival facility; and second prepare you for what is in store for when you get here.

PLEASE NOTE: If you will be visiting us briefly, please call ahead.  We can have your material pulled and ready for your arrival, which will cut down on time spent pulling your information.  In addition, never assume that your research will only take 10 minutes and bring your pets with you.  Our parking lot is not shaded, and we understand how quickly researchers can lose track of time.  We do not want anything to happen to your furry friend, while you are visiting us.  (And yes, this did happen on multiple occasions last year).  One last thing, many facilities, including ours will not allow new researchers in 30-45 minutes prior to closing.  We are not trying to be mean, it is a tool used to help the researchers currently at the facility check-out of the research room on time, with copies and research material in hand.

Visiting an archival facility is like visiting a grocery store; you need a plan of attack.  If you are like me, you can spend minutes, hours, or days developing your grocery list.  If you are also like me, you also forget to get about a quarter of what is on the list and end up with items that you did not need.  Regardless, planning, especially with the Weekly Advertisements, helps save money and time at the store.  Having a plan of attack for research is also a good idea.  Researchers LOVE to research.  How many times have you been sidetracked onto whole other topic because you read about something interesting? Next thing you know, it is Saturday at 4:00 and we are closing and you did not even find half of what you were really looking for.  It happens to the best of us…including me.  Remember: No, we will not give you just five more minutes, because we spend the remaining half hour of our day, preparing for the next, even if it is a Saturday.

By doing some “pre-research” before your visit, you can plan your attack, find the information you are looking for and hopefully leave enough time to research the stuff that catches your eye.  Pre-research beings on an archival website; where some institutions include finding guides to their collections.  Finding guides come in a variety of programs, from a Microsoft or PDF document to a keyword searchable database.  Whatever the format, these guides are designed to show you what is in the collection, and provide you with enough information for you to decide if the information will benefit your research.  These guides or indexes will not give you digital access to the actual document.  For that, you will need to visit the facility.  Some institutions, bigger institutions with a lot of financial support, will often post a collection online and in full.  The reality is this is only a small percentage, the rest of us do not have the financial backing or the labor to digitize our collections.  Personally, the fun is not in the clicking of a mouse, it is in the hunt through real paper.  It is also, why you can be sidetracked.

Doing pre-research will also familiarize yourself with your own research.  This will assist you in asking us what you specifically need for your research.  I cannot stress this enough: Please do not visit an archival facility and ask them for everything they have on such and such a topic.  For example: “I would like everything you have on Oley, PA” or I would like everything you know on the Weiser Family.”  It is much better for your research, and to receive material appropriate for your research to ask specific questions, such as: “When was Oley, PA founded” or do you have any genealogical materials specific to the Weiser Family that will help identify a date of birth for my family member?”  By asking a specific question, we can better target the information you need, so we are not wasting your time with something that is not helpful for what you are looking for.  In addition, be prepared to answer follow-up questions regarding your research.  Staff and volunteers will often ask questions to help narrow down the possibilities of reference material to better target the information.  If you are unclear in what you are looking for, these questions will help guide you and extract the information we need to provide you with the proper material.  Know what you want before arriving, it will cut out a lot of aggravation and speed up your researching process.

This also applies to email requests.  Believe it or not, most institutions will not answer research requests sent through email.  The standard response from us is, yes we have the information but you must submit an official request with the appropriate fees.  Rule of thumb, if it took you longer than 5 minutes to write your email and send it…it is most likely a request that you will be asked to pay for.  Please do not email an institution your entire life story to only ask if they can help find the date of your great-great-grandfather’s birth.  Email is a good communication tool for asking about hours of operation, or confusion regarding a finding guide, it is not a venue for original research.

Archival institutions are the keepers of primary documents.  And while we appreciate the vote of confidence, we are not experts on all things history or Berks related.  It is our job to provide you with the information you need to make your own conclusions.  We cannot perform original research.  We provide you with the tools you need to complete your own research.  We want you to have a fun and productive experience while visiting us.  We hope to see you all at some point over the summer!

Happy Researching!


I am going to attempt to keep a blog of the behind the scenes at the Henry Janssen Library, in addition to other things I find interesting.  The Henry Janssen Library, the research library for the Historical Society of Berks County, is on Facebook, which I do not update as often as I would like.  You can also learn more about our services at  I am still getting my feet wet, so to speak, so please bear with me.

First and foremost…yes, I am an outsider.  I am not from Berks County; was not born or raised here.  I am actually from Lockport, NY, known as having the most locks on the Erie Canal, among other things, located around Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  For the first year and a half I lived here, I thought I was on another planet.  It takes a while to adjust to moving, which I did to take the Archivists position at the HSBC.  Each new place has a different rhythm and pace.  Reading reminds me of a city, plopped down in the middle of a field, which gives it a unique character that is actually peaceful.  No major city traffic, no city noise and if you travel 10 minutes down the road, you are in the country.  Berks County is the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Lancaster, PA just has better publicists) and that heritage is old, strong and interesting.  One does not have to grow up in a location to appreciate the history of where they are living.  In fact, one of my favorite pre-wedding gifts from my soon-to-be hubby is his grandmother’s handwritten PA Dutch Cookbook; of, course, I have to preserve it first.

As stated in the About Me section, I am the HSBC’s first officially trained archivist.  What exactly does that mean?  Answer: A LOT OF WORK.  Since October of 2008, we have started inventorying the entire collection, mostly because we really do not know what we have.  Hidden, literally, in this facility is a wealth of information, which has been buried in boxes and hidden from the light of day.  The library was run for years by retired librarians, who did what they could based on what they knew and to make it easier on them to find things.  There is no consistency in how they cataloged a book, let alone a document, or why some donations received more care than others did.  The bigger the collection, the better the chances there is no finding guide, nor did that collection receive the proper care.  Archives are all about arrangement and access; and unfortunately, sometimes the best way to start organizing is to start from scratch.  In the two and a half years since starting the inventory, we have located and identified manuscripts, deeds, maps and other documents that no one knew we had; and it is only the beginning.

I will try my best to inform and educate not just on preservation, arrangement and access, but on the history as well.  I am not an expert on Berks County History, nor will I ever be, but my main job is to educate and inform.  Archives and history are not boring and static and if you have ever visited us, you know we like to have fun and learn.  I hope you will come to appreciate this history as I have and find this interesting and informative.  Please feel free to comment or add your own information.  History does not exist in a vacuum everyone has knowledge to contribute.