Maxims for Rare Book and Archives Research


Slow down.


Tolerate mystery as a precondition to discovery.  Resist annoyance.  Remain amused.


Collaborate with colleagues; do not compete with them.  Collaboration concentrates attention; competition distracts.


The more eyes on a document we are studying, the better we will see it.


Do not be afraid to be curious.  There is always more evidence available than we now can see.  Look again.


Do not be too proud to study the historical context in which our documents were produced.  Preparation encourages serendipitous discovery by giving the mind a large field of expected patterns which novel, nondescript phenomena will violate in surprising or irritating ways.


Never trust what is written on the spine or fore-edge of a book; never trust the title page of a book.  “Book” is a word for a container, not a single commodity, and until we have thoroughly examined the container we do not know what is in it.


Who, what, where, when, why, and how are questions which may be asked many times in many ways about the same document with respect to its author(s), printer, publisher, binder(s), owners and other previous readers, including censors and vandals.


If direct light does not make the text legible, use "raking" or "oblique" light, with the light source held pointed at the edge of the document at about a 5 degree angle of elevation off horizontal.  If raking light does not make the text legible, digitize an image of the page.  If digitization does not make the text legible, ask a colleague to look at the original document with you and start over.  If that does not work, put it aside and come back to it later.  Only in special cases will it be worth using X-ray Fluorescence Imaging.


We never guess; we always look it up.  We may even resort to searching with Google, but we never stop there.  Trust print editions over digital surrogates unless the digital surrogate is a facsimile, and even then, seek evidence of the original's size and composition.  Trust modern print editions over older print editions unless trusted reviewers tell you otherwise.


Always create a clear record of what has been done with/to the documents, especially schemes for describing, conserving and storing them, and relating them to other documents.  None of us will live forever.  Someone coming after us needs to know what we have done to build on our work.