Dear Archives: Tips on Contacting an Archivist or Special Collections Librarian
I was recently trying to remember when and how I first learned to write a letter. I asked some colleagues and many responded that they learned in high school in typing class. In my high school, we also learned typing. This was far back in history before everyone had computers in their homes. We had to learn how to use a computer. The purpose of this class was to prepare us for the world of employment. Where do you put the address and the date in the letter? What does the structure of a business letter look like? At that point in computing history, most people saw computers as typewriters and calculators rolled into one machine. At least that is how I remember it. Forget about e-mail. That would be a few years away.
Fast forward to 2015. It is clear to everyone who works with undergraduate students that few have learned in school how to write a business letter, or a business e-mail. This post explains to first-time writers of letters/e-mail messages of a professional nature the mechanics of requesting information from an archives or library.
When contacting an archives or library for the first time, provide as much information as possible in your initial message. This will help the archivist or librarian to better assist you, and there is a good chance you’ll receive an answer faster if you devote more time to your initial message. You may think that you’re providing too much information and that you’re wasting your reader’s time, but it will save time if you provide us the information up front. The “us” to which I refer is all archivists and librarians, not just the ones employed at The New School.
A good way to begin an e-mail message to someone whose name you do not know is to write, “To Whom It May Concern:” Some people prefer “Dear Sir or Madam.” Because no one ever calls me “Madam,” I like “To Whom It May Concern” better. It’s up to you. Both are correct and polite ways of beginning a letter. Do not start out your letter with “Dear Gentlemen.” Most archivists in the United States are women. Of course, if you already know the archivist’s name, feel free to use it.
If you are a student and you are contacting the archives for a specific class, it is helpful to share that information in the first part of your message. Please identify your instructor’s name and the course number. Why? Your instructor might have contacted us beforehand to share your assignment with us, and we may have already gathered potential resources for your course.
Next, tell us about your research topic. Be as specific as possible. For example, if you are researching the history of Union Square Park, do not tell us that your topic is “New York City” or “history.”
Share with us which steps you have already taken in your research process. Did you look for books in the library or search databases? Did you check our Digital Collections site? Did you schedule a one-on-one appointment with a librarian? What do you hope to find in the archives that you have not already found? What do you want to know that you do not know? Your research questions will help the archivist determine which collections might be most appropriate for your topic.
You can save some time by offering potential days and times that are convenient for you to visit the archives.
Here is a recommended template:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am a student in Professor X’s [name of class] class/department. I am researching [advise of your research topic. Be as specific as possible.]
I have looked at [tell us which resources you’ve already consulted, either on our website or elsewhere], and would like to know if you have [Additional documents? Related collections?].
I would like to schedule an appointment to visit the archives. My available times are….
Here’s a sample message:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am a student in Professor Chen’s “Inequality in New York” class. I am researching how New School students and faculty have responded to mass incarceration in the past.
During my class visit to the archives, we looked at a newsletter from the Graduate Faculty students. Do you have any additional student publications I could look at? I searched on your website, and I saw the Parsons student newspaper,.
I would like to schedule an appointment to visit the archives. My available times are Mondays after 3 pm, and all day Friday. Please let me know when I could come to the archives.
Students, do you still have questions about writing an e-mail message to an archives? Let us know.