being a reader in rare book libraries

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a reader in a rare books library, a place like the Folger, or the British Library, or the Beinecke, for instance. That is, the sort of place where the lucky among us get to do research and routinely handle rare materials.

I think about this topic often while I am teaching my undergraduate course on book history. Undergraduates are not typically allowed into rare book libraries–I’ve heard stories that even some university special collections don’t like to let students handle their materials, an attitude which is sorely misguided and shameful and not, I hope, actually common. But because undergrads are only a recent, and quite small, presence in the Folger reading rooms, I worry that they might be looked at askance by other readers. And because it is a wonderful thing that the Folger lets my students have full access to the collections, I am especially careful to train them on how to be good library citizens.

I tend to think of being a good library citizen as common sense: there are the usual rare materials guidelines (no bags, no food or drink, no pens) and the usual library protocal (cell phones off, voices quiet, don’t turn up your ipod so loud that others can hear it–actually, that last one comes from my own private distate of ipods in libraries, a quirk that might be mine alone).

What needs to be taught more explicitly, of course, is how to handle rare materials: use foam supports and book weights, don’t force the binding to open further than it wants to, turn the pages carefully, wash your hands frequently. In my experience, students take to this instruction quite well. They are thrilled with the privilege of having access to these books, and they want to treat them with care and respect. And they really get it, especially once you explain the principle behind proper usage: the oils on your skin will leave marks on the page; if you force the binding it will break; if you flip through the pages, the edges will tear. If you can show them the structure of a binding–how the boards are attached, how the gatherings are stitched together–then it makes even more sense. The basic point of such handling techniques is obvious, especially to students of book history. Use the books with respect so that others can learn from them in the future.

But what I’ve been thinking about recently is not how to handle rare materials, but how to handle rare materials users. This is something that librarians are always conscious of, along with the need to balance access to materials with preservation of those materials. Go too much to either extreme, and nothing makes sense anymore. Too much access, and the materials will disintegrate. Not enough access, and what’s the point of keeping them? I kvetch about digital surrogates sometimes, and how much information is lost when you are looking at an image of something rather than the thing itself. But one thing that facsimiles do is to protect materials. The first round of information that a reader is looking to gather can often be found through looking at a facsimile or other surrogate; some will need eventual access to the original, but even if the number of uses is reduced by only a third, it’s still a reduction.

More tricky is the need to balance attracting readers into your collection with protecting the collection. The British Library’s recent installation of hand sanitizers during the swine flu scare is a perfect example of this. They installed the sanitizers to make their visitors and readers feel more secure in coming to the Library, but then they had to remind readers that the sanitizer could damage Library materials if it wasn’t used properly (let it dry, people!). In her post on this, bookn3rd saw this as “as a tug-of-war between our society’s panic over disease and the continuous, low-level panic of managing library collections” (her parenthetical insert in the previous sentence would have been the even more sensible injunction, “just wash your hands, people!”).

But I want to think about the question of what it means to be a reader in a rare book library not from the perspective of a librarian (since I’m not a librarian) or of an institution (since I’m not an institution, either). What does it mean to us, as readers in libraries, to be a reader of rare materials? What are our responsibilities to those materials, to the library, and to the other readers?

Since I assume that you, my lovely readers, either know how to handle rare books or would teach yourselves how to do that before you start handling them (more on that in a minute), one of our collective responsibilities is to help other readers handle their materials safely. That might mean intervening yourself, or it might mean getting a librarian to come to the rescue. I certainly realize that it’s not as easy to do as that. We tend to come from a world that punishes snitches and whistle-blowers rather than the wrong-doers. And most of the time we come to libraries to do our research, not be on the look-out for what other people are doing. (Well, I hear stories about rampant flirting in libraries, but you know what I mean.) I can think of instances when I saw something in a reading room and I thought “what?!” and let that be the end of the situation. In my defense, the most recent time, I was stunned that someone would try to staunch their bloody nose while sitting in the reading room rather than in the privacy of a bathroom–and the books on the table weren’t from a restricted collection but from the modern stacks. But still, I wish I had said something. Blood on a rare book is bad, but blood on a modern book isn’t good either.

The problem with my reticence, and the reticence that I know many of us feel in the face of poor library behavior, is that we too often rely on librarians to be the caretakers of rare materials, rather than seeing it as a collective scholarly responsibility.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be visiting a number of libraries (including the fabulous British Library), looking at promptbooks and other rare materials. I’ll wash my hands thoroughly and let them dry completely, I promise! I’ll be careful with the materials. And I’ll try to speak up if I see someone who needs help. Or at least I’ll go find someone who can speak up.


For those of you who would like some instruction on how to safely handle rare materials: The best way to learn what to do is to ask a librarian; she or he will be able to inform you about general practices and show what the policies are of that specific library. You can also find some information online, including written guides from the libraries at Univerisity of British Columbia and University of Southern California, and videos demonstrating handling practices for a wide range of materials from the BL.

One last word: The photo heading this post is of a highly responsible reader in the Folger’s Old Reading Room, a reader who happens to be one of my former students. And check out the use she’s making of surrogate materials: she’s comparing two copies of a book, one held in our collection (nicely supported on foam) and one from EEBO. Just makes you want to come for a visit, doesn’t it?

12 thoughts on “being a reader in rare book libraries

  1. >Well for every bad reader there is also a bad librarian or library policy. Perhaps if more rare book libraries allowed digital cameras … you get the picture

  2. >I'm not going to get into library policies about digital cameras, since I don't want to give the impression I'm speaking for the Folger on this and it's really not my concern here.I will turn this back to the point of my post, which was not to denigrate some readers as "bad" but to say that we all have a responsibility for ensuring the safe use of library materials. There are some readers who willfully misbehave and there always will be. But overwhelmingly, what I see in libraries is the misuse of materials by readers who don't know any better. That's not a bad reader. That's someone who needs someone else to take the time to help them learn.

  3. >I'd love to come in for a visit, Master de Worde (if I may), but I – a Ph.D. student in early modern studies, still in coursework but with plenty of experience handling rare materials and driving towards a bibliocentric dissertation – am not allowed. I know you are not coextensive with your institution, but man does that rule annoy me. And here's why: it assumes that rank guarantees proper usage of the collection, when in fact it's perfectly observable (your nosebleeder being a perfect, if icky, example) that the established often mistreat books where the neophytes are gently competent.Another strange balancing act: how to measure access in terms of as broad a collection as the Folger's? If there are whole segments of the collection that are underused (as I suspect those I am interested in, for example, are), why refuse a graduate student who is enthused about them and competent to handle them? I've made this personal, as I can only argue from what I know about my own bibliographical desires, but it isn't, really. I'll be just as happy to plop down at one of those tables two years from now as I would be today. But your post, read alongside the Folger's policy, does raise some interesting problems for how we understand grad students as situated in the profession in relation to institutional and material dilemmas of preservation and access.[Oh — I'm not on Twitter, but Wynkipedia? Genius.]

  4. >I'm with Moria in sometimes finding myself aggravated by access rules that are based on rank rather than training or experience. Perhaps rare book libraries could instead require a demonstration from the reader that they understand the rules of proper usage, or provide a short training session as a condition of access. Resources like EEBO are great and should reduce long term wear and tear, but there's nothing like handling the real thing.Oh, and I too am deeply annoyed by the noise from other people's iPods in the library. As for the bloody nose – that's just wrong on so many levels.

  5. >I wasn't familiar with Folger's access policies, and now that I've looked, I'm a little surprised how restrictive they are (I couldn't get in either). But I strongly suspect they're not so much designed to keep out "the wrong sort" or anything, so much as to make the amount of patron traffic manageable by the limited staff of the reading room. I do also note that the policy clearly envisions exceptions: "Other persons who feel they have a particular need to use the collections may apply for special permission to the Librarian and must also send two letters of reference." Have you tried applying? You might find that you're more welcome than you imagine.

  6. >Well, as Moira puts it, I am not coextensive with the Folger, and I'm not in a position to explain the Folger's rules about becoming a reader. But I did want to echo what John Overholt says: library restriction are often not about prejudging people's ability to use materials, but about keeping the number of users down to a manageable level. And as he points out, the Folger does have a provision for readers who do not meet the criteria of PhD holder/PhD dissertation writer: any one can apply to the Librarian for a special exemption. Another way for graduate students to get access to the Folger's collections is to take a course through the Folger Institute. Seminar participants are Readers during the course, and can apply to continue their Readership after its conclusion. It's not an automatic in, of course, to either the course or the renewal. You'll need to apply to a course for which you are qualified, and you'll need to have a project that needs to be researched at the Library. But the Institute has great offerings, and if you're at a school that is a member of the Institute, you can usually get a travel stipend to cover your costs. I think, Moria, that might apply to you.One last thought: There are great special collections at many universities, and lots of other rare materials libraries to be explored. I'm fortunate that the Folger is my home. But there are wonderful things all over. Go ask your local librarian. You never know what you might discover.

  7. >I never intended my original post to be about the Folger per se, more a general comment about archives. As other readers have picked up on, what you are talking about (in part) is access – as reader to get into the archive and then to materials in that archive. But I'll leave aside the first part of this.As you know, archive policies vary widely, from the largely open access and minimal restrictions at the BL, to other places which ban taking in any paper or mandate the use of gloves to handle rare material. These, imho, are policies which need to be re-thought, as does the use of digital cameras – something which admittedly can create a disturbance, but also limits the multiple handling of material. However, there is another problem. One of the main reasons that documents are restricted is not because of their 'value', but the lack of money to conserve them and it is a huge and growing problem. It also impinges upon your point – if you can't see the materials, then what's the point in keeping them. Philosophically, one might even argue that they don't exist … Readers vs Archivists – it's not going away anytime soon!

  8. >You raise two great points, Chris. The standards of archival access do range widely, something that might in part have to do with the differences between collections, library facilities, and library users. But those differences are often attributable to shifting standards. For instance, my sense (without having actually researched this) is that the use of gloves to handle materials was once standard and is now less common (for good reason: it is very hard to feel how gentle and where to handle something when you can't actually feel it!). The use of cameras, especially digital cameras, is something that has yet to be fully appreciated, both in terms of the advantages of allowing readers to take photographs and the disadvantages. I suspect that will change, especially as more and more readers clamor (gently) for permission to take pictures.As for the restrictions on collections due to their conservation needs, you are absolutely right: there is never enough money to do all the conservation that collections need. And one way to manage that is to restrict access. It would be great if there were more images available of those materials. (And some of it is available: the Shakespeare Quartos project makes accessible books that are typically restricted because of heavy demand. I've blogged about that before, or follow the sidebar link to the Folger Digital Image Collection to learn more.) But that's a money issue too, isn't it? Digitizing materials costs money, money that could also be spent on a host of other library needs, including paying for conservation, or hiring more catalogers, or even creating and maintaining digital access.

  9. >Hi! I'm delurking to comment on your very interesting post, because I think it speaks particularly to scholars working in rare book collections that don't see quite so much action as places like the Folger or British Library (and their students). At the University Library nearest where my parents live, their modest rare book collection contains an inexplicably rich collection of early modern scientific texts, so I always go visit while I'm home. When you go in (no need to apply for a reader's card or furnish letters) they willingly hand over books. The first time I went I asked for foam pads or books supports, only to be told they didn't have them; and when I asked if they had snake weights to hold pages open the librarian suggested I put a heavy book on top of the open book to keep it open! Having recently spent months at places like the BL which drill into you the need to preserve, I was horrified. I managed to construct cradles for myself and I think the books emerged from our encounter no worse for the wear, but I really got a sense of the serious damage that could be done if I hadn't been so (overly?) careful. Which is to say, just because rare book rooms won't let you in (I was an undergrad at GW and was resoundingly denied access to the Folger while there), doesn't mean you shouldn't develop conscientious habits earlier!

  10. >A point to remember is that these are human organizations. Access policies are often the result of two things in an archive/special collections: the institution's traditions and the personalities of the staff. You would not believe how powerful one or two staff members can be with regard to how any given reader is treated in the reading room on any given day–and that power often has no relation to rank. I'm not saying that we don't implement national standards like professionals shoudl do–I'm saying that every place has its own topography, and that often trumps the norms of the "industry" in-house.

  11. >The British Library used to have an exhibit of rare manuscripts that I think is the most wonderful exhibit of anything I've ever seen. James Joyce's manuscript of Finnegan's Wake (? or was it Ulysses – it was crossed out and re-written and crossed out again and so on until 2 pages held about 1 sentence that lasted); Handel's Messiah score. There is something sacred about the actual material thing that the writer used. The exhibit I'm thinking of might not still be around, and of course everything was under glass, so it doesn't really relate to your point. If we don't scan these into durable digital storage and soon our generation will be cursed for another obvious tragic loss of irreplacable items. –Chris

  12. >On a much less serious tack, my main memory of using the Folger was the disconcerting experience of intently reading a book/manuscript in the library only to be wrenched away from my intellectual reverie as a velvet curtain covering the glass door in front of my seat was pulled back to reveal to astounded tourists 'the reader' in all his glory. Perhaps Folger fellows should get an 'appearance fee' added to their stipend.

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