You know, the Reference Department of any archives is probably the most visible of any department—it’s what researchers see during their research visits. I think that holds true for the AHC as well, but with the caveat that Reference Archivists don’t just do reference—there’s a lot that we do behind the scenes as well–such as acquisitions work, managing the Anaconda Geological Documents Collection, sometimes even processing collections that we’ve acquired though acquisitions work, managing the schedules of the department’s student workers, ensuring that our blog, Facebook, and Twitter pages are full of interesting tidbits, and providing audio-visual duplication services for our researchers.
Still, the Reference Department is the most transparent of any department here at the AHC—we are located in a public space, while many of the other AHC’s departments work behind the scenes, in areas that most researchers don’t get to see (we do offer tours of work and storage areas—so feel free to contact us if this interests you). Our reading room looks a lot like the study areas in libraries, we have a reference desk, and there’s someone at the desk to help you if you need it. We’re out in the open most of the time, where researchers can see us. We’re here to answer any questions you have about the American Heritage Center and the collections that we have here. Again, this is a lot like a library. And you know what else? We actually do have a library—a rare books library that provides research access to books pertaining to such topics as the American West, British and American Literature, Early Exploration, Religion, Hunting and Fishing, as well as fine examples of the book arts.
But there a quite a few key differences between the collections and services that we offer and those of the main campus or public library. For one thing, you can’t take home anything you check out. For another, our “stuff” is completely original and you won’t find it anywhere else—which is why we don’t circulate our collection material. My reference colleagues and I are on hand to help you navigate our catalogs and finding aids—things that help you locate what you need. We answer your requests that you send by telephone and email—we’ll even do some research to help get you started. We answer thousands of requests each year and each member of the reference department will work on several each week—there’s a constant stream of questions coming in, which is just how we like it. We enjoy the opportunity to learn new things from researchers’ questions and our collections–these are mysteries! We put on our sleuthing caps and do a little detective work for on-site researchers as well as our distance patrons–it’s extremely gratifying to be able to discover a key piece of information for one of our researchers. You should also know that you’re never interrupting us when we are in the reading room—we’re thrilled to answer your questions—just try us. You’ll have a hard time shutting us up—there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the collections, but mostly, making the connection between a researcher and the content of the collection is what really gets us excited.
We love that each day in our reading room is different—our researchers bring such interesting questions and their own expertise to where we work that it’s impossible not to learn something interesting. We’ve had researchers tell us some amazing stories behind their research—one gentleman was trying to uncover the records of his family’s land ownership so that he could show his grandson where his relatives had homesteaded. Another researcher was ecstatic to find William Boyd’s hairs inside the cowboy hats that he wore as his TV character, Hopalong Cassidy—there was some joking talk of future cloning experiments! An eleventh-grade History Day participant uncovered some documents relating to the Hindenburg disaster, and his documentary on the subject won him a trip to the national History Day competition in Maryland. The AHC’s own archivists often dive into our collections, to prepare for public presentations, exhibits, and research papers. The pull of our holdings draws researchers from as far as China, Israel, and South Africa, and Argentina—as well as all 50 of our states.
And every semester, we work with instructors from LCCC and UW to give tours and orientation sessions to help UW students delve into the AHC’s collections for their research projects. Often, undergraduate students decide to become history majors because of the research that they’ve been assigned to do here at the AHC—what might start as a tedious class assignment becomes an adventure and an academic passion.
So, the big question is this, “what will you find in the archives?”
–Rachael Dreyer, Reference Archivist