June 22, 2016, by Kathryn Steenson

Top 10 Tips: Visiting Manuscripts & Special Collections (pt 1)

Exams are over; next semester doesn’t start for several months; and the sun is shining (it is somewhere!). For final-year dissertation students and academics it can only mean one thing: it’s time to start planning summer research trips to the archive.

Hopefully these Top Tips will help first-time visitors to Manuscripts & Special Collections, although some are applicable to other archives and rare books libraries. Part one lists how to prepare before you arrive, and part two has advice about what to expect when you’re here.

10 – Find a Finding Aid

Don’t assume material is – or isn’t! – here. Have a look at the guides to collections and online catalogues before you arrive. Special Collections (i.e. books, maps and other printed materials) are in the library catalogue. Archives are catalogued very differently to books and have their own separate catalogue.  Make a note of the full document reference number for manuscripts or barcode for books.
Photo of a young boy holding a map and looking at a blank signpost at a crossroad, MS 565/120

9 – Contact us in advance

You can email or phone us to tell us when you’d like to visit and what you’d like to see. We’ll get the material out ready for you and check that it’s not on display in our exhibition gallery, needs conservation work, or has been requested by someone else that day. If there’s a problem, we’ll let you know before you make the trip here.

Photograph of a woman speaking into a microphone at the Severn Trent Water Customer Service Bureau, c.1989-1991

8 – It will take longer than you think

The majority of the collections at MSC are in closed stacks, so you can’t physically browse them. We will fetch material and bring it to you. If you order documents or books on the day, you might wait up to 30 minutes to receive them.

Prioritise what you want to see. Whether you struggle to read faded 17th century handwriting or stumble across boxes of material you didn’t expect to find, archival research can take much longer than anticipated.

Small extract from a document, written in Secretary hand

7 –  It’s not online

If you want to see something at MSC, you’ll probably have to visit in person. Our online image gallery has thousands of images, but these are only a fraction of the 3.5 million documents and 60,000 rare books we hold.

Non-archival boxes to be replaced on shelves in the Store

6 – Copyrights and Copywrongs

You’re welcome to bring your own camera, but please ask before taking photos. We may need to make copies for you and send them to you at a later date. Some documents and books can’t be copied at all. Don’t assume that old equals public domain! Many unpublished archives are in copyright until 2039, so you’ll need permission to use images in your research. If you want a copy purely for your own research then please keep it safe, as copyright law states we can only provide you with one copy.

Two members of digitisation staff laying out 5 feet long poster surrounded by lights and camera equipment

The next post will focus more on what to expect when you arrive, but if we’ve missed any crucial preparation tips, please leave them in a comment below! If you’re coming to visit or have any further questions, please leave a comment below, phone us on 0115 951 4565, or email mss-library@nottingham.ac.uk. More information about what we hold and how to access it is on our website, and you can keep up to date by following us @mssUniNott or subscribing to our newsletter, Discover.

Posted in Archive skills