I have to do a field study for my Archival Methods and Services (LIS 438) class, which entails visiting a local repository, using it to answer a research question, and then writing a 3-5 page paper about the experience. In the past I've mostly used small, community archives, so for a change of pace, I chose to visit the large and impressive print department of Boston Public Library's Special Collections.
The entrance to BPL
Before I could visit, I had to come up with a research question. Since I didn't know what collections the department housed, I went online to its website (BPL Special Collections) to get an overview of what it had. Even though only a tiny part of the vast Special Collections has been digitized, BPL still does an exemplary job of listing what it has available for researchers and the general public. But with so much selection, it was a little overwhelming! I ended up picking the Adlow papers, a collection of late 18th and early 19th century documents that belonged to a local lawyer and judge, mostly because it looked interesting and was close to the top of the list, which is alphabetical. I also didn't want to choose a really popular collection, like the Sacco and Vanzetti or the Dickens. This was mostly because I wanted to see how accessible some of the less frequently accessed manuscripts were.
I called the print department and made an appointment to see the papers the following Friday, telling the staff member on the phone I was researching where Suffolk County got the land on which they built a prison in the 1820s, as the Special Collections website said the Adlow papers had documents related to prison construction during that time.
When Friday time came around, I took the T (subway) to the Central branch of BPL in Copley Square. I had been there before on a tour, so I knew where Special Collections was, but if I hadn't, I would have had a difficult time finding it. The department is located on the third (and top) floor after walking through two ornate galleries and a long reading room. Its small lobby is beautiful, lined with leather-bound books dimly lit behind protective glass. It's deceptive because once you go into the department, it's obvious its enormity is concealed behind doors. And there are a few requirements for going through those doors, which I read about online beforehand. Just as the website said, when I checked in at the reception desk, I needed photo ID and my library card. Using these and a card I filled out within a few minutes, the library assistant registered me and sent me to locker room to store my jacket and bag. The only things you can bring into the manuscripts area are loose-leaf paper and a pencil.
BPL's Central lobby
Armed with my meager supplies, I stepped through the glass doors labeled "Researchers Only". And then I was in a world of books. They were all around me, and they weren't behind glass. Their spines weren't brightly colored with the flashy jackets that grace the shelves in Circulation. Instead, the earth tones of their mostly leather and occasional fabric covers gave the walls they lined a muted brown hue. It seemed like the whole room was some version of that color with the brightness of the orange carpet and pale yellow walls magnified by the glare of the overhead florescent lighting. As I proceeded to the reference librarian's desk, I noticed some oversized books with gold and metal embellished covers. They looked like they were straight out of a medieval library, yet they were just lying there on carts. Across from them I saw an island of card catalogs in the center of the room, and on another wall, a distinguished looking gentleman stared out at me from his stately portrait within an elaborate gilded frame. It felt like I was in Hogwarts in the 1960s. I loved it!
The reference librarian, Kim, was very friendly and helpful. She gave me a finding aid for the papers related to prisons in the Adlow collection, which comprises over 10,000 documents. Within half an hour I had found two documents that looked like bills of sale. I wrote their folder numbers down on call slips, which I gave to Kim, and she called the documents from the stacks.
The whole process was much easier than I thought. The finding aid was well organized and allowed me to locate what I needed, and the staff was remarkably helpful. And even though it took a bit of time to retrieve what I called, when I examined the documents, it was worth it! In my hands I held the answer to my research question, written on delicate yet fibrous paper covered with elegant, sweeping cursive script penned almost two centuries ago. One of the records even had residual wax on it from a seal, though I couldn't tell if it was the judge's seal or the county's. It was red and sticky, and at first I thought it was chewing gum. Touching the tacky surface of the wax, I thought of Judge Adlow. Did he seal this? Was this his handwriting or his clerk's? I felt small thinking about the years separating me and Adlow and everything that had happened during them. My mind entered a dreamy history fuzz as I travel back in time mentally. I had so many questions, and if I had all day, I would have loved to have called more documents to get answers. I was following my questions down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, when suddenly my stomach growled, snapping me out of my haze. I needed to get lunch before a group project meeting on campus in the early afternoon.
I returned the folders of papers to the librarian, and we chatted amiably about the extent to which everything had been cataloged and the card catalogs themselves. She knew I was a Simmons student from information I gave when I made the appointment, and I felt like the cool kid in school, included in the small world of librarianship during our brief conversation. Then, going back through the secure doors, I said goodbye to the assistant at the desk and retrieved my stuff from the locker where I had stored it. It had been a productive and memorable field experience. What a fun assignment!