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Research Room Etiquette: What to Bring and What to Do in Archives or Library Research Rooms

Libraries and archives are still important repositories of information in this increasingly digital world. Working in a research room, however, is different from online investigating. Find out how to dress, what to bring and what else you need to know to make your research room experience successful.


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With so many documents available digitally in the privacy of their own homes, many genealogists are able to research online in their housecoats, surrounded by snacks and drinks, if they want to.

At some point in your research, however, you will probably need to visit a courthouse, archive or research library and work with microfilmed, photocopied or even original documents. Sharing a research space with others, and handling important documents, requires genealogists to follow certain guidelines to make their experience successful.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a strict set of rules for people perusing documents in their research rooms, as you might expect from the keepers of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. While your local courthouse or archives may not be as strict as NARA, some simple rules will make your on-site research a productive and friendly experience for you and the librarians or archivists you meet. This is especially important if you are making a one-time, long-distance trek to an archive.

1. Dress for Research

NARA does not allow outerwear or head coverings (except for small or religious head coverings) in their research rooms. If you enter an archive wearing a hat and coat, especially if they're wet or covered with debris, be ready to take them off. If you are carrying a large briefcase, backpack or purse, you may also be asked to leave it with the archivist or librarian before going into the research room.

2. Eat and Drink Up Beforehand

This may seem obvious to you, but rest assured that there are people who don't understand why they can't enjoy a ham sandwich oozing with mustard while they flip through land records. Don't bring food or drink with you. NARA also forbids gum and candy.

3. Know What Research Materials You Can Bring

Check with your facility beforehand about acceptable writing materials. NARA only allows pencils and mechanical pencils in their research rooms (although you may use pens in the microfilm research rooms). NARA also has approved paper for researchers to write on, and forbids folders, binders, notebooks, envelopes and post-it notes in their research rooms. Find out what your facility asks researchers to write on, what they can write with, and how notes can be stored.

4. Know What Technological Devices You Can Bring

NARA allows video and audio recording decks, personal computers, flatbed scanners with no auto-feed, and cameras. They don't allow flash bulbs or personal photocopiers. Before you lug a collection of high-tech equipment into the research area, make sure it's acceptable. Again, if you're making a special, long-distance trip to a certain archive, it's best to be completely prepared for their research rules.

The cell phone rules for most archives and libraries are similar to other workplaces: if you must keep it with you, turn it off or set it to vibrate. If a call comes in and you must take it, leave the research room so as not to disturb the other researchers.

5. Know and Obey Usage Rules

You may only be given a certain number or documents or publications at a time. You may also be restricted to only a certain number of hours in a research room. To maximize the time and access you're given, do the following:

- Decide precisely what information you're seeking and which resources you need to look in. - Find out beforehand if you need to sign up for research space or resources. - If you're coming from a distance, see if the facility has special considerations for out-of-town researchers. Researchers who drive a considerable distance to visit NARA's Regional Archive in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, are allowed to reserve microfilm readers for more than the two-hour limit.

6. Be Professional to the Library and Archive Employees

Most employees at libraries and archives are there because they love history and information. They may be able to suggest resources you haven't thought of or known about, including different documents, local genealogical societies, museums or cemeteries. What many librarians and archivists do not love is a long, detailed recounting of someone's family history. Appreciate their knowledge and their willingness to share it, but don't take up their time with the oral history of your many lineages.

Libraries and archives are still important repositories of information in this increasingly digital world. Working in a research room, however, is different from online investigating. By focusing on what you need, being prepared, and following procedures you will prove yourself a competent researcher as well as find the missing information you need for your family tree.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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