“Closed” vs. “Open” Stacks

If you have looked at visiting a library or archive as a part of your genealogy research, you might have seen or heard the terms “closed stacks” and “open stacks” before. What do these phrases mean? And how will these designations affect your visit? Let’s examine each one.

Open Stacks

If you have ever been to a traditional public library and walked among shelves to select books at your leisure, you have visit a library with “open stacks.” It means exactly what it sounds like, most of the materials held in the library are freely available to visitors. You may not be able to check them out, and you may need help finding a specific book, but you are not restricted from meandering through the shelves and pulling books to look at. Most public libraries and universities have open stacks along with many small historical or genealogical society libraries.

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This is a genealogy library with open stacks in Boone County, Indiana.

What does this mean for your research?

In an open-stacks library it’s easy to loose focus on your research task. It’s like visiting a buffet of books! Prepare for your visit before you go by seeking out an online catalog and making a list of materials you want to look at. If your time is limited, work on your checklist and save browsing until the end. Open stacks doesn’t always mean the materials you want are easy to find. Don’t be afraid to ask a librarian for help locating information. Even libraries with open stacks can restrict their most precious materials. If you come across a locked case or restricted area, just ask the librarian for help. Usually in a library with open stacks patrons are asked not to re-shelve materials. This is because many materials don’t circulate and the library likes to scan them to keep track of their usage. It is also important to remember that open stacks does not necessarily mean open access. You may be expected to pay an entry fee, register as a guest, or obtain a special library card in order to have access to the library.

Closed Stacks

If you have ever visited a courthouse, special collections library, or any kind of archive, you’ve probably experienced “closed stacks.” This means that visitors cannot help themselves to the materials they want to view. Instead you must work with the librarian or archivist to identify the items you want to see and wait for the items to be retrieved for you in the Reading Room. The shelves where books and boxes are kept may have restricted access or they may not even be visible to you. Closed stacks are typically used when the repository houses valuable and historic documents that must be treated with great care. Users are often restricted in the belongings they may bring and the number of items they may request at one time.

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Closed stacks at the HSBC Archive in London. (Courtesy of flickr user iamdanw)

What does this mean for your research?

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The library in South Bend, Indiana used to have some closed stacks, the old stamps are on display.

Closed stacks can be frustrating to a researcher. It can feel like you are asking someone else to find a needle in a haystack when you ask the archivist for materials. It is very important to allow a lot of time and preparation for your visit. Check to see if a catalog or “finding aid” exists online before you go. (A finding aid is a description of the archival materials in a collection, but usually doesn’t go so far as to inventory each item in the collection.) Find out if the repository has any restrictions on what belongings may be brought to the reading room. Begin communicating with the repository staff well in advance to determine whether they hold materials that will be useful to you. You will need to be forthcoming about the goals of your research so they can determine what materials to suggest to you. Arrive early, in large repositories with many visitors locating and retrieving a single box might take up to an hour. Entry fees for archives are rare, but you will almost certainly have to register as a guest and perhaps provide identification.

Where have you encountered closed stacks while researching? Share about a repository you’ve visited in the comments below!

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