Inquire Within: Fashion Research at Academic and Special Libraries

Part 4 in an ongoing series.

At this point in your fashion research, you have hopefully first spent many hours exhausting your options at the public library. Your next step may be a more specialized or academic library. Depending on what sort of institution you approach, you may or may not find resources and collections that are more current, unique, specific, peer-reviewed, or downright heady. However, they might come at a cost: application, fees, limited access, travel, formalities, or just getting through the gatekeepers. While all of that is probably worth the effort, this is your last reminder: are you certain you haven’t missed any gems of research options back at the public branch down the street? If not, do proceed!

Private or “special” libraries are privately funded, yes, but public access is generally allowed if not welcomed. There are several types of institutions to pursue, depending on your topic and the breadth of your search. A web search for museums, colleges, universities, or historical societies in your proximity should give you an idea of the collections nearby. On the front webpage of such organizations, skim for words like library, collection, or information centre. Remember not to confuse the word ‘research’ in academic settings for the more specific noun (think data, theory and hypothesis, etc). Sites generally clearly state who the library serves and how to gain access. While some collections may have stricter access policies than others, they are in place to protect the collection, save staff resources, and ensure the best of the best is available to their primary audience first. If you are determined enough, you may be able to talk your way through the toughest of policies and access the incredible resources protected by them.

Academic Libraries and Special Collections
These multidisciplinary collections of resources are built around the fields of study available at an associated institute of higher learning. If there is no emphasis on fashion or the fine arts in the institution, resources on clothing may be less prominent or may fall under other categories. Just because fashion isn’t taught or researched at this school doesn’t mean there isn’t a wealth of fashion resources associated with, say, a history or theatre department. A school of fine arts, on the other hand, may have a librarian specifically devoted to fashion resources and research, or even a separate library for the school of fashion.

Libraries, archives, and special collections at colleges and universities are of course intended to serve their student body, faculty, and alumni primarily. But these institutions are in the business of building, organizing, and sharing knowledge, so access can be fairly open. When perusing a website for access information, keep an eye out for certain hours or times of year that you might be more or less welcome (or when a library might be closed for spring break). A guest pass may be required, and may also let you access things you normally couldn’t without a student ID. Get an idea of how different schools provide public access on library pages like the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Amsterdam, Kansas State University, and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.

Museum Research Centers and Collections
The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “a permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” Many museums include a library specific to their content for their curators and private researchers alike.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is an example of a museum with extensive research options for the public: library, archives, and collection. Each of these provides a different perspective on the world of design and on the museum’s holdings. The National Art Library is an enormous collection of books about art and design, housed in several gorgeous rooms inside the museum, or brought there on request from offsite storage. The library is free and easy to access after registering as a Reader. The V&A Museum Archives are located off-site, and include the records and personal papers of individuals, associations and companies involved in the art and design process, with an emphasis on British design. The museum’s fashion collections and textiles collection can be viewed online, but does the public have access to these beauties outside of the exhibition halls? The Furniture, Textiles & Fashion Department includes this information on access: “The Collections can be accessed via a range of facilities and services from online access through Collections Online, Gallery Talks, and Lectures to personal appointments to view objects within our stores.” With no further details as to how to make that appointment or who might be eligible to better study a particular piece of 18th century Venice lace, it is unclear how much clout or gall one might need to make it happen. To get the hang of museum libraries and study centres elsewhere, check out these in New York City, Houston, Toronto, Paris, and Washington, D.C.

Small Private Collections
I live near all sorts of gorgeous mountains, but many hours’ drive from even a small university or art museum. What I do have access to is a small but fascinating collection at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum. Small organizations can often provide easy access to clothing information if your topic is at all relevant to your locale (or sometimes even if it’s not). JHHS is an example of the many small collections that find themselves in an interesting juxtaposition: a wealth of donations of local historical objects is bittersweet alongside limited staff and financial resources to properly conserve, catalog, and research the collection. The benefit to the researcher, however, can be simpler access, one-on-one assistance, and staff with first-hand knowledge and experience in the collection. During an appointment at JHHS’s research centre, a museum curator guided me through a digitized photo collection (complete with details and context she knew that were not yet included in the photos’ records), showed me how to search the objects database so I could find things in the collection, and walked me down rows of boxes full of textiles. Though a collection might be small, easy access and professional assistance that might not have been available to you at a larger institution can be well worth your trip. Examples of archives access in small historical collections like this one include the Richmond County Historical Society, Stamford Historical Society, the Des Moines Historical Society,and the MacNaught History Centre.

If you are not a city-dweller, or if institutions nearby have been less-than-exciting thus far, you might want to save a day or two for research when you travel somewhere new. Remember to get all of the information you need ahead of time: gaining entry often requires making an appointment or applying for access days or weeks in advance.

The best thing you can do to get the access you need in any institution is to be informed both on your topic, your goals, and the policies in place there. Asking to see a gorgeous dress just to see it or asking about the Edwardian dandies without a basic understanding of their era is bad form. Know what it is that you need to get out of your research in a particular collection. The more notable the institution, the more prepared you ought to be. Even if it’s easy to simply get inside, better preparation will also empower you to feel capable of finding precisely the answers you need. The worst thing that can happen is a closed door, so what have you got to lose?

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Research Online
Part 3: Research at Your Public Library

text by Christy Shannon Smirl
graphic by Rachel Stevens

2 thoughts on “Inquire Within: Fashion Research at Academic and Special Libraries

  1. Regarding the V&A archives, there is a phone number to call, unfortunately I cannot think of where I found it previously — possibly through a tutor. You request to book an appointment to see an item, which they will remove from its archive for you to examine. There is usually about a 3 month wait to get in.

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