The other day, I was sitting in the New York City Municipal Archives on Chambers Street. Actually, I was sitting there researching records for two solid days. On the first day, a woman came into the archives. It was clear, like so many others there, that she did not understand the kinds of records the archives held, or how to find data.
All of us are novices at some point, and it was commendable that she was trying to get information on her own. In fact, I think she was also brave. The archives are very intimidating. However, rather than going to the archivist to ask for help and learn how to start her research and find records, she walked around the room asking people intent on their microfilm searches at the microfilm readers, and those sitting at computers looking for their own family.
At first, people were very helpful but as the day wore on, they had less and less patience with her. She finally went to the archivists for help, which they provided. She sat down and began accumulating the numbers of the microfilms she needed. Then she stood in front of one of the two sets of drawers containing the marriage records pulling all the microfilms she needed at one time. This prevented other researchers from being able to access the microfilm.
The message? First, try to find out in advance of a visit to an archive what the layout and protocol is, where the records can be accessed and how. If this is impossible, the first thing to do when entering the archives is to speak with someone who works there to get some guidance. People who are doing research for themselves (or clients) in the archives are happy to lend encouragement and share their expertise, but not extensively – they are there to do research.