Reading Room Recommendations

Margot Note

Margot Note

May 15, 2023

Reading rooms are secure spaces used by the public to review archival materials. They are designed so that the records are always protected. 

A reading room should provide reader comfort with optimum security for historical materials. Collections leave the controlled environment of the archival storage area to be used in the reading room, and every effort must be made to ensure that the materials do not become damaged, misfiled, or stolen during their time in the room. 

Each archival facility will have unique requirements depending on its collection, the space available for research activities, and its security and researcher policies. For example, larger repositories may have multiple reading rooms serving specific collections or record types. Organizations with significant holdings of paper and multimedia materials may want a reading room for researching using paper records with other spaces for those listening to sound recordings, viewing microfilm, watching videos, or browsing digital files. 

Room Characteristics

Reading rooms should be:

  • Accessible from the public entrance of the building, without having to walk through or by the storage area
  • Accessible through a single entrance 
  • Located in a quiet area and designed with soundproofing
  • Arranged with enough space between tables to permit carts
  • Organized with few visual varies so that staff members can observe researchers

Ideally, reading rooms may have the following:

  • Automatic door openers for the service doors into the room. If oversized materials are researched, provide double doors.
  • A reference desk located centrally so that staff members have clear lines of sight to all room areas. The reference desk may have a silent alarm button that links it to security. In addition, it should have room for a computer, supplies, and any other operational equipment required by members.
  • An average workspace of 7.5 square feet per researcher
  • Researcher tables measuring 30 inches in height. Typically, a one-person table measures a minimum of 36 by 42 inches; a table for more than one person measures a minimum of 48 by 72 inches.
  • Research table space for oversized records. If oversized material is seldom used, or if space is limited, consider providing several rolling tables that can be placed together to give a larger area when needed.
  • If desired, windows but they must be secured, double-glazed, and filtered. In addition, windows should be visible from the reference desk so that they can be monitored.

Researchers should register for access in a location outside of the reading room. For example, in a shared facility, it may be necessary to place the registration at the entrance or in the lobby of the building. 

Security Concerns

Researcher lockers and public restrooms must be located outside of the reading room. A secure entrance and exit to the reading room should be located separately from the registration and locker areas. There must be no direct access to restrooms or other unsupervised spaces from the reading room. 

For high-profile organizations or those concerned about personnel safety, theft, or damage to materials, installing a metal detector at the entrance of the reading room or facility may be necessary to check for metal objects, such as guns, knives, or razor blades. For example, the Center for Jewish History, which houses five archival organizations within its building, has a magnetometer in its lobby. Walking through a metal detector can be an intimidating welcome to an archival repository. Still, it is necessary, and the security personnel’s professionalism, courtesy, and friendliness mitigate the experience. 

Multiple Uses

A reading room might also be used for other purposes. For example, if the building does not have a large meeting room, the room could serve as a room for meetings outside of researcher hours. While having a room solely for archival research is ideal, space needs in many buildings are limited. A room that offers flexibility for archival research, meetings, exhibits, and events may be a practical approach. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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