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June 6, 2012 / bethan

Lone archivists & reading room provision

Thanks to Helen Weller, Archivist at Westminster College, for this guest post. Helen posed a question to the Archives-NRA list asking for advice on providing and invigilating a reading room in a small archive when you are the only member of staff, and this post is Helen’s summary of the guidance she received.

Preparation for the visitor

Almost everyone asks visitors to make an appointment, books only one or two visitors at a time, or books visitors for specified time slots (am or pm). This ensures readers get the help and attention they need!

Most ask users to identify in advance which documents they need, so that these can be waiting (though several people point out that of course, what readers request is not always what it turns out they need!). Opening to visitors half an hour late and closing half an hour early will give you time to prepare and return everything – extra documents can also be fetched at lunchtime. Make it easy to keep track of your documents: allow only (eg) three documents at a time; or have a system for checking documents in and out (also useful for statistics!)

Be clear on your website and in your initial contact about conditions and rules (eg lunch breaks, photocopying, requesting things from off-site storage). Many replies emphasised that most readers are happy to see the items and don’t mind whatever policy you have as long as they know in advance.

Reading Area

It was a fairy even split between organisations which take their readers to a meeting room or library to which the Archivist accompanies them (and brings their own work to do); and those which seat users in the Archivist’s office – either way, you are on hand to answer questions and discuss.

Obviously it is inconvenient to work away from your desk, and you need to plan your workload to do so. However, if readers are sharing your office, you may not be able to discuss sensitive issues with colleagues or on the phone. You would also need to make sure any confidential documents you are working on cannot be read by users, and that your personal possessions are secure. And you should not eat or drink at your office desk if readers can see you doing so – or, if you must, you should at least emphasise you haven’t got any original documents there.

Additionally, if you have a reader’s desk in your office, you need to ensure that it doesn’t get taken over by a member of staff (leave bookstands, handling regulations etc on it to highlight that it is a reserved area).

Make sure your basic searchroom security is easy to administer alone. Suggestions include: have a signing in procedure with address and contact details (make sure they’re legible!), and / or photo ID; ask on their first visit that researchers sign a form to say they agree with the terms of use, which is effectively a promise to behave; provide a designated area for coats and bags and restrict what researchers can bring with them; sit facing or side on to researchers, not with your back to them; consider installing a CCTV camera – real or fake! – or a webcam; or use mirrors so you can keep an eye on people. As one respondent said, users should be able to see you seeing them.

Lunch breaks

Almost everyone closes their reading area for lunch. Most people try to agree with the reader in advance when a lunch break should be scheduled, so that they both leave together and meet at a set time to recommence work. Some negotiate leaving for coffee breaks as well; some take their readers for coffee with them; some just do without. Again, most readers seem happy with various arrangements as long as they’re explained in advance.

Short absences / fetching further documents

Some archivists are willing to leave readers alone – particularly known and trusted readers – very briefly (eg two minutes to go to the loo, or to fetch more records if the store is nearby and you can lay your hands on the item quickly). One person made a point of not telling visitors how long they would be gone. Some ask a colleague to cover for them; some ask readers to wait outside the reading room.

Some archivists put one item away as they fetch the next, so the reader is not left alone with anything. Some mentioned that readers are usually willing to hold doors and help carry outsize or awkward items, and one pointed out that this also keeps them with you!

If you need to leave the room to photocopy records, ask if you can post them on to the reader after they leave, or ask them to wait while copies are made after all other records have been put away.

Long absences (eg meetings)

The verdict is almost unanimous: if you have a user, you cannot normally attend a meeting, and vice versa. Use your Outlook to block off a reader’s appointment as busy so you cannot acquire further meetings. And having to decline or cancel meetings because a user is coming may even help to get the message across that you need assistance!

However… some organisations allow trusted long-term users to work alone, particularly when invigilation would mean the Archivist working away from their desk. One person with long term researchers (coming in for days or weeks at a time) said they made sure they were present for the whole first visit and then tried to ensure the researcher had everything they needed while the archivist carried on with their normal work, including leaving the room to go to meetings – though this was with a proviso that if the archivist ever felt uncomfortable about leaving a researcher, a colleague would cover for them.

Help from other people

Many archivists get helpful backup from librarians (usually give long term cover if you take your users to work in the library), reception staff or other colleagues (mostly for quick cover), and trusted volunteers. One organisation says they give a ‘trustee’ status to people who have volunteered in the past or who have come in very frequently. Some respondents have mentioned that although it’s no substitute for proper invigilation, if there’s more than one user they keep an eye on each other.

Extra security

A company policy for invigilation makes it easier to refuse to leave readers alone with documents, as it’s then obviously not a personal decision. If your rules have been approved by (non-archival) senior management they will be understandable and defensible.

Remember your personal security: you may need to consider the implications of the archivist working alone, in terms of having either a panic button or just other staff who will come on call if the archivist feels threatened or would like to ask a user to leave.

And finally, The National Archives have published draft guidance aimed at non-archivists with archives in their care – on pages 11 and 12 there is the section ‘Supporting safe access’:



Leave a Comment
  1. alison-cullingford / Jun 6 2012 10:10

    Reblogged this on Collections in a Cold Climate and commented:
    Useful guidance for tricky situation all too common in special collections world.

    • bethan / Jun 6 2012 13:00

      Great! Thanks Alison 🙂


  1. Alone in the Reading Room « The Special Collections Handbook

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