[HNW] (long) Getting in to see rare books

Kim Salazar kbsalazar at mediaone.net
Fri Feb 1 12:12:18 PST 2002

I can offer up this advice on gaining admittance to rare books in
libraries.  I managed to winkle my way into several while working on "The
New Carolingian Modelbook."

Gaining access to limited collections isn't tough, but it isn't a drop-in
proposition either.

First, call the library and find out to whom a letter of request should be
addressed.  Name, title, exact room number and the like.  Be very, very
polite and get as precise an identification as possible.  For example,
there might be a general reference person and a special collections
person.  One or the other (or occasionally both) may need to be directly

Second, write that person a letter.  Make sure it is well written, clear,
business-like, and free of typos.  Write this letter at least two months
before you need access.  This allows time for the necessary back-and-forth.

Explain exactly what book you are interested in and why you are
interested.  If possible identify a specific question or questions you are
hoping that seeing the target book will resolve.

For example, requests to see and sketch aren't as likely to be granted as
requests to view and compare/contrast something about their book with
another work, to cast light on the possibility of Author A having had
access to/or being influenced by Author B.  Don't just throw this reasoning
together.  Take time to come up with a logical and specific query.   Don't
make up some huge bull story about your research.  Trying to find a
succinct answer to one tiny question is more credible than building a whole
huge scope of inquiry of which this visit is only a small part.  As part of
your rationale give a very brief synopsis of your research to date and
other places you have visited (if any).

Any academic credentials or references you might have are also a help.  By
that I mean letters of recommendation from university-recognized
professors, academic librarians, recognized and published authors in the
field, and the like; or advanced degrees you yourself have earned or are in
the process of earning.  These aren't absolutely necessary, but they cast
good light on you as being a responsible and serious inquirer.

Outline exactly what you wish to do.  If you want to make images, say that
you are interested in the motifs but are familiar with the fragility of
older works and know that photocopying and photography are too stressful
for most rare books.  Say you want to hand sketch from the originals and
specifically ask permission to do so.  If you have the least intention of
publishing your findings, say what the sketches will be used for (some
libraries do not allow images of their holdings to be re-used in any public
manner without specific permission.)

In your letter, ask for the times and conditions of availability.  If you
are planning access to coincide with a trip you are taking, say when you
will be in the area but let the library pick the time most convenient to
them.  They might have to schedule a staff proctor to work with you and
finding free time for that person might be an issue.

If you are able to afford it, volunteer a contribution to the library's
support fund.  Remember - you are NOT buying access time.  You are
expressing your gratitude for/appreciation of the immense resources it
takes to maintain the collection.  Your letter should reflect this respect
of the holdings.

Make sure everything in your letter checks out.  Call anyone you cite as a
reference and make sure they are able to speak on your behalf.  Don't claim
credentials or affiliations you don't have.  The people who read these
requests are very familiar with frauds and dishonesty.  They can sniff it
in your prose.

Most of the time a letter works.  Sometimes though you are
rebuffed.  Occasionally the letter of denial will have a loophole in it -
like "we allow access to only current enrollees, faculty and alumni."  In
that case, track down the head of the closet alumni association and write
them a similar letter.  Often you can find an alumna/alumnus who is willing
to help.  Sometimes you can track down a faculty member and interest him or
her in a similar manner.  Persistence can pay off, but don't become a
nuisance or you'll become known as a pest and you'll NEVER get in.

Sometimes you will receive a flat denial.  Try again in a year.  Be very
polite and do not refer to the previous year's denial.  Staff and policies
do change.  Also, a year later you might have gained entree into another
collection that increases your credibility, or you might have made new
academic contacts who are impressive enough to get you in.

Hope this helps, and happy researching!

Kim Salazar
kbsalazar at mediaone.net

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