Quandary: The difference between archives and libraries | SummitDaily.com

Quandary: The difference between archives and libraries


Quandary, the old and wise mountain goat, has been around Summit County for ages, and has the answers to all questions about life, love and laws in the High Country. Have a question for Quandary? Email your queries about Summit and the High Country to Quandary@summitdaily.com.

Dear Quandary,

I don’t understand, what’s the difference between a library, museum and archive?

In short, libraries let you take stuff, museums have lots of objects and archives have paper-based materials that you can’t check out. For example, Picasso’s paintings belong in a museum, whereas a journal he wrote describing the paintings would go into an archive and a book written by a researcher about the journal would head straight for a library. Libraries and archives are the most similar, but libraries have items that are usually mass-produced and easy to find. Archives, have the stuff you can’t get on Amazon, and so they are a little more protective of their collections.

The difference between these organization not only has to do with the materials they house, but also with what visitors can expect. In a museum, you will be shunned and possibly beaten — at least if a curator had his way — for laying a hand on an object. At libraries you can touch anything you darn well please, and can even take stuff home to look at. Archives stop short of letting you take stuff home, but an archivist can pull items out of storage and allow you to view and handle the materials — after you’ve handed over all of your earthly possessions like backpacks, put on your gloves and been given the standard lecture about the evils of getting in a rush. Don’t be surprised if you have to sign a document outlining the rules too, and you’ll most likely be given a research number or card that the archive will keep track of. That way, if Edna Dercum’s hand-written love letters come back into storage with grape juice stains, the archivist will know exactly who to direct her wrath toward.

Archives also take a little more planning before a visit. You can go to a library, pull a book off the shelf and begin reading. Since archives deal with historic materials, the goods aren’t just left out. An archivist has to go into a special storage area and pull the materials related to your subject. How long this takes will vary depending on a lot of factors from the size of the collection and the staff to the condition materials are in. For a small archive, it can take several days, if not a couple weeks to pull materials, so before you pop in it’s best to contact the archivist and let them know what subject you are researching. You can often see finding aides — an outline of materials in a collection — online, but archivists know their own collections better than anyone, so reaching out might help you to find a hidden gem. It will also keep the archivist from looking like a deer in headlights when you come in and say, “I want to look at maps of Breckenridge.”

Be as specific as possible when you are making requests — it’s easy to broaden a topic, but if you ask for “everything related to mining” you’re more likely to get a smack upside the head than any relevant materials. Also, know that some of the really cool stuff might not be available to pull. If old papers or maps are in really rough shape they might be pulled from a collection to be restored. This means you’ll have to wait until it can handle your presence, or you might just get to see a photocopy.

Basically, if you’re writing a book go to an archive, if you’re reading a book go to a library and if you just like pretty pictures, a museum is the place for you.

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