Helpers

Higher Education Libraries in your PERsonal history reSearch

How to email an archivist

Front line library staff are more than happy to help you with your research, and are invaluable in helping guide you around libraries and the resources stored there. Most librarians and archivists will answer queries by email, but writing an email that clearly conveys what information you're after can be a tricky business. This page gives some hints on writing better emails. (We use 'archivist' loosely here, we really mean anyone in a library or archive with responsibility for dealing with client queries.)

Don't ask for your research to be done for you...

The common complaint you'll hear from archivists is that they are expected them to do the research for their clients. The main thing to remember is that archivists are there to help you with your research, to point you in the direction of the resources you need, but not to do your research for you. Also bear in mind that if you're emailing a university archivist, they are generally more than happy to help members of the public, but they are employed to help academics and students. Therefore the first piece of advice is...

Write your email, then sit back, re-read it and think to yourself: if I was an archivist how would I respond to this email, would I think that it's asking for my research to be done for me? If the answer's yes, take a deep breath and rewrite it.

Make your context clear...

Remember that you may be deeply knowledgable about your local history, but don't assume that the archivist reading your email is. Start your email by describing in a paragraph what your research question is (if you don't know what your research question is, or can't express it in a single paragraph, then now's a good opportunity to practice -- all sorts of benefits stem from being able to express your research question neatly and succinctly).

Get someone who isn't knowledgable about your research to read the opening paragraph of your email. Does it make sense to them? If it doesn't, it may well not make sense to the archivist either.

Describe what you've tried already...

Make it clear what resources you've looked at already, and explain why they don't supply the information you're after. This prevents the archivist from repeating work you've already done, and also makes it clear exactly what you're after (and not after). If you want to know if a collection contains a specific piece of information be as clear as possible about the information you're after, and as specific as possible about where in the collection you think it may be found.

Be succinct, but not terse, and patient...

Much has been said about how emails are a rapid communication medium, and some people have an unfortunate habit of sending out badly worded single syllable emails. If you write a to-the-point, but polite and grammatically correct email, you are likely to get a much more favourable response (remember: most archivists work in libraries and care about good grammar!) Also remember that it may take several days or weeks to get around to answering your email, so be patient. If you haven't heard anything in a week or two, drop a short email asking after progress, but definitely be polite, and don't make it sound like you're pestering.

Say thank you...

Everyone likes being thanked. If you drop a short thank you email, you're all the more likely to get a positive response next time you ask that archivist for some help.

Glossary

The Helpers system is developed as part of the Accessing our Archival and Manuscript Heritage project, at Senate House Library, University of London, funded by the Laser Foundation and the EARL Consortium. Please see the project website for further details.