Home » Course Blog » National Archives Rules: A Discussion

National Archives Rules: A Discussion


In preparation for tomorrow’s work at the New York Public Library, I ask you comment on the rules of using the National Archives in Washington, D.C. that are posted on the February syllabus page (you can also access them here.) Which ones seem right to you? Which seem obscure? Do any seem stupid or pointless? How would you prepare to visit an archive? Feel free to comment on other people’s posts as well.

Since I got this post up late, I am going to start with Phoenix Smithey’s remarks, left in the comments section of another post. In your remarks, you might want to riff off of Phoenix’s observations — or take another tack entirely.

I feel most of the rules are pretty standard and expected. I firmly believe in the no food or drink rule. I could just imagine something terrible happening with a spill. I understand and agree with the rule against large bags and possibly sneaky clothes. On the other hand I don’t like the fact that an officer can search your person anytime as they see fit. The basic rules on the care and what you can and cannot take in with you seem pretty fair to me. I have no problem with being asked to pack up five minutes early. Like I said before these rules seem pretty standard.

I found the rules about pornography and personal hygiene to be pretty amusing. I suppose something at some point created a need for them but I would never have thought to put them on the list. It also surprised me how much documentation is needed to get a reading ticket. I suppose it’s just like getting a library card though. I also found the whole appeal process to get your reading ticket back to be a little silly.

To prepare to go to an archive I would throughly check myself. I never realized until reading these rules just how damaging people can be. These are very important documents and are completely irreplaceable. I mean they won’t even let anyone under sixteen in without an adult. I also need to be really careful about copyright laws. That section was eye opening and reminded me to be extra careful. I realize most of the documents are under Crown copyright but I would still be on my toes. Mostly I would just prepare myself to be trusted with someone’s life and things that have been very important in the recent history of New York.



  1. Kerri L. says:

    I have to agree with Phoenix, all rules are reasonable and expected besides being searched at anytime. I could understand if there were evidence or valid suspicion of theft but not when an officer sees fit. I guess it would depend on the type of search needed as well.
    In addition, using a pencil for notes makes complete sense and also only having one document or tape out at a time is a given. A rule that made me laugh was the one on taking off a sweater or light jacket and possibly being asked to check it and not leave it on the chair? Not sure I got why that is necessary.
    Although I’m sure there is a valid reason or something that someone did in the past that created this rule and all of them.

    To prepare to visit an archive I would follow all rules and be ready to ask questions before doing something I was unsure of.

  2. Norma Juarez says:

    I completely agree with Kerri and Phoenix.
    Two rules I found a bit silly at first were 12 -not being able to take more than one notepad (up to A4 size) and 20 sheets of loose paper and 21: only using graphite pencils without erasers. I find it odd that it can’t be more than 20 pieces of paper, but it is easier to have someone glance over 20 pages quickly, rather than an entire stack that could take hours. While I’m snot quite sure about the graphite pencils, I’m assuming since graphite pencils may better than lead in the sense that it avoids smudges on pages, it could be archive safe.
    I would have to be really careful when it comes to the archives and making sure that the archive is exactly how I found it. Something that I have to remember is making sure to inspect the document before I focus on it. This would include reporting any damages suffered, marks, or any tears since losing archive privileges (and even the process of getting it back) seems so much worse/time consuming than taking 5-10 minutes to inspect and report damages the files.

  3. Evon says:

    The rules regarding using the National Archive seem to be pretty suitable. The information that is provided is very precious and should be protected with the following rules being in force. I do agree most with the food and drink rule – documents that hold as much sentimental value have every right to be protected from anything, especially food. The rule that i agree the least with is the ones regarding personal hygiene. I understand how this may be able to effect the documents and the public, but how do you judge what is bad and un acceptable. i think that rule is a bit deeper in context and my be confusing to judge, depending on may factors.

    to prepare myself to archive, I would pretty much follow the steps and rules and asks as much question as possible to make sure i am on the right path.

  4. ariel says:

    I feel like perhaps the mental preparation due before entering or exploring a public archive may be very entangled with the rules for these visits as they stand. While the rules do not seem overly malicious or unreasonable, they do seem to assume worst intentions of the visitors. Perhaps it is just an overly entrenched bias of mine, but I feel that when trusted, people exercise their best intentions and when intensely policed, people reject common sense and either fear engaging at all or reactively wish to test the given limits.
    Perhaps in order to mentally prepare for visiting the archives at the New York Public Library, I should remind myself the rules that exist are there to preserve archival material -for- the citizens of New York, i.e. me, and not -from- the citizens of New York, i.e. me.

  5. potterc2012 says:

    One of the reasons there is so much scrutiny, of course, is that theft is one of the main problems of an archive. There is something grad students do called “running down footnotes,” which means going back into the archive to check the documents used by another historian. You would be shocked at how many documents have gone missing — and of course some have quite valuable signatures. But Ariel, I like your attitude on this. I think what all of you are pointing to is very interesting: what does it mean to think about the use of archives as a collective project — one that includes people we do not know and have not met yet?

  6. juliawdm says:

    Ariel points of view on the rules of archives made me understand that even if we don’t see at first the use of archives as a collective project, rules might be one of the first reminder of the reality of archives as a collective project. In fact I imagine that if you enter an archive, you acknowledge that someone were here before you, while you read, you might want someone to find what you found. It is obvious to think about the use of archives as a collective project, because of its relationship with the passing time (protecting the past/present/futur), it includes people we will never meet or that we don’t know yet. Thinking about the use of archive in general creates a common thought (higher purpose), out of time. In addition to the importance a single person may attaches to a specific archive or part of history,Tom Nesmith insists on the fact that thinking about the use of archives as a collective project allows to protect democracy in a way. People need protected sources, protected by people like you and I, in order to trust the government/democracy. When archivists go through all these different processes, steps ect.. I suppose they can only think about the use of archives as a collective project? In order to allow other people to think, it makes us realize that it is not only about a collective project, but also about how to think the collective consciousness of a specific country. a map of our history, guided by the collective consciousness of a specific time in the past.. Our postmodern society aim to a democratization of knowledge, and it starts with this collective project; archives. Therefore, we might understand the necessary strategy of self effacement, when it comes to archivists. They think about the use of archives as a collective project, and include people we do not know and have not met yet.

  7. Lynn del Sol says:

    I think I understand the rules, they seem the same as the picture files in most archives. they want to limit as mush as possible the chance of their, misplacement, or damage. So too many notebooks, folders, or things with pockets… danger. food and drink–danger. when I was a younger kid it was pretty standard that one could not bring such things in a study space. that rule has long gone away in most libraries but when enforced I look at that time as an enforced break time 🙂 I’m a computer person that eats erratically so I’m pretty good with the general.

    I do wonder, since it was not clear, I can bring my laptop, and my phone… can I assume an iPad is ok as well?
    And just to be clear you have removed the cases for all of these.
    And at the NYPL opposed to the National Archive… we are allowed to take pictures of our findings correct?

  8. Ellen Spindler says:

    I liked Julia’s comments about the archives as a collective project protecting documents for unknown future visitors and allowing for a temporal expansion of research options. Most of the rules were not surprising. I didn’t understand not being able to use artificial light and handheld scanners as I dont think they would fade documents. I know when I went to an archive at the Cincinnati library they had lighting and gave us magnifying glasses but we had to check our cell phones. I would prepare for a visit by bringing my reading glasses (not an issue for most of you) and preparing topical index cards based on the archivists’s classifications and
    previous research even if I had to explain my need to use personal notes.


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