You can’t do that in here! (Plus 7 Top Tips for using an archive)

Last week, while on the trail of a religious sect known as the Jezreelites for an article commission, I made a visit to the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone. It’s one of my favourite places to visit but I always find entering the research room a little intimidating. For some reason it reminds me of my first day at school when I didn’t know all the unspoken rules and, as I waited at the help desk for my locker key, I accidentally discovered a disturbing new ruling…

Image courtesy of Mister GC at
Image courtesy of Mister GC at

Archive assistant: Sorry Rachael, new policy, you can’t take that metal tipped pencil in there.

Me: Sorry?

Archive assistant: Someone (fill in your own word for an unsavoury character/despicable scumbag) has been using the tips like a blade to cut out pages.

Me: Really! That’s horrendous.

Archive Assistant: Yeah, you can’t use pencil sharpeners anymore either.

Me: No problem (scrabbling through my handbag to find another pencil)

Archive assistant: Here, want my pencil…

A few minutes later, while waiting for my manuscript to arrive, my mind went into overdrive about all the rules involved in keeping our historical documents safe and what that means for us archive users, especially if you haven’t used an archive facility before.

Hopefully you might find some of the following useful:

Image courtesy of digitalart at
Image courtesy of digitalart at

1. Don’t forget your ID

If you haven’t used a library research room or an archive before you’re going to need to take at least two forms of ID with you, even if you already have a library card. This will enable you to obtain clearance to use the archive and be issued either with an upgraded library card or an archive access pass.

Image courtesy of khunaspix at
Image courtesy of khunaspix at

2. Tame your sources

Elderly books and papers are fragile and tricky to handle. For one thing they don’t lie flat when you want them to and you end up hunched over, with your digits in knots, as you try to read them. All games of finger twister can be avoided, however, if you ask the archive assistant to give you a foam book stand or some weighted beads to keep the papers open. I’m afraid it doesn’t make it any easier to decipher some of that spider like script but lots of practice, a friendly assistant or a palaeography course (which KH&L Centre also run) can help with that.

Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at
Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at

3. Stop the splodges

We all know that once pen has marked something it can’t be removed and the last thing you want to do is damage those precious papers. So remember to take a plain pencil with you (one without a metal banded rubber attached to the end) as pens are banned. Take a spare too because due to the rather dubious character mentioned above, sharpeners are no longer allowed in some research rooms either.

Image courtesy of m_bartosch at
Image courtesy of m_bartosch at

4. Say cheese and avoid hand cramp

If you don’t want to waste your precious research time handwriting endless verbatim notes consider investing in a day’s camera license to take photographs instead. It will give you extra time to copy down your essential quotes, facts and figures and provide you with a factual copy for your own* reference. This will also give you the option of enlarging some of that tricky handwritten text via your computer.

I have to say that the licenses aren’t cheap, its currently £10 per day at the KH&L , so you may find it more cost effective to have your items photocopied. You can usually copy up to 5% of a printed book but expect to pay in the range of 25p per A4 page.

Another alternative, especially for speedy typists, is to take along your laptop/iPad/favourite gadget and type up your notes as you go along.

*Please be aware that you CAN NOT publish any image –even if you have paid to take it, no matter how old the document is, without the written permission of the archive or collection holder involved.

Image courtesy of sattva at
Image courtesy of sattva at

5. Eek! Is that the time?

Research tables are usually booked in two hour slots but the time flies past when you discover something exciting, are waiting for further records to be retrieved from the vaults and are booking in and out. Always give yourself more time than you originally anticipate and pay for some additional parking beforehand (and not via an exorbitant parking ticket afterwards!)

In order to get the most out of your visit and save yourself some additional time you can also:

  1. Reserve your table in advance,
  2. Use online archive catalogues to make a note of the reference number for the records you would like to see. (If booking in advance you can also ask that these records be ready for you although you will only be able to view one at a time.)
  3. Arrive slightly early with your library/archive pass to hand as you don’t want to spend your research time waiting in the queue at the help desk. (And don’t forget to take your additional ID if it’s your first visit)
  4. Prepare in advance and have everything you will need in an easy-to-carry bundle. Bags are not allowed in research rooms so everything else will have to be put in a locker.
Image courtesy of Ambro at
Image courtesy of Ambro at

6. Don’t suffer in silence

If you don’t know how to find something, use a piece of equipment or have any sort of question – no matter how basic – just ask. Staff are generally very friendly, incredibly knowledgeable and are there to help you.

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at
Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at

7. And finally, don’t forget your tissues

Some incredible stories lurk within those seemingly innocent paperwork bundles and I’ve been caught without enough tissues on more than one occasion. So be warned, you may get away with whispering to your neighbour but wiping your nose on your sleeve is frowned upon.

Happy browsing and if you have any tips you would like to share, please do put them in the comment box below.


PS. If you would like to know what I discovered about those fascinating Jezreelites from Gillingham, grab yourself a copy of the March 2015 issue of ‘Kent Life’ magazine and check out my ‘History Scrapbook’ feature.

Published by

Rachael Hale (Homes and History Magpie)

Freelance home interiors and Kent history writer. Member of the Society of Authors. Find me via Twitter - @rachaelhale1 Read my home interiors and history blog -

4 thoughts on “You can’t do that in here! (Plus 7 Top Tips for using an archive)

  1. Fascinating article, Rachael!! I’m not surprised about the pencils – I read a book a little while ago about a guy who was systematically stealing maps from priceless books at all the major US libraries! He mutilated hundreds of valuable books…


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