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.
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