Paper Rituals

It is perhaps not surprising that we can be a little obsessive about our paper here at AAS. However, a recent influx of interns reminded me how strange all the paper shuffling that goes on at the desk can appear to an outsider. People new to doing research at AAS, upon being asked to present their exit card or asked where their pink slip is, are often — not surprisingly — perplexed. After all, can you even be given a pink slip and get fired as a reader?

While the seemingly endless paper shifting may, at first glance, appear merely obsessive, it is absolutely essential in a closed-stack library. (To read about other seemingly odd terms at a research library, click here.) After all, every time an item leaves its home in our climate-controlled stacks there is a risk of it being mishandled or misplaced. To prevent any such disasters, a variety of pieces of paper create a sort of bread-crumb trail for each book or item. The paper trail for each item marks its way safely out of the stacks and then back again to its original spot, where it will remain secure until called for by the next reader.

So you see why the rituals of working at the reference desk rely heavily on moving pieces of paper from one spot to another. Each type of paper has different rules for its usage, where it should be kept and returned to, etc. Carefully choreographed movements specify exactly where each type of paper should go and signify a variety of messages to those “in the know.” Here’s the inside scoop on the paper rituals of Antiquarian Hall.

The Call Slip
The call slip could be thought of as the “trinity” at the center of our paper rituals (although to do so may be rather sacrilegious). It contains three-parts-in-one and is absolutely essential to our paper rituals. Each call slip is numbered, and when readers write out the information about the materials they want on the top layer, it transfers to all the layers below. This way everything can be matched up exactly.

The White
The white is the top-most layer of the call slip and it becomes main player in our paper games. The white is filed in a box at the desk anytime an item goes out into the reading room so that we know to ask for it back at the end of the day. No one can go home until the box at the desk is cleared of white slips, because that means all the collection materials have been turned in.

The Pink Slip
Don’t panic! This pink slip is just the second part of the call slip. The pink slip must stay with the book or item at all times until it is returned to its proper home in the stacks. So I guess this makes a pink slip a good thing, and in fact a necessary thing, to have. Whew!

The Buff
If you hear us talking about “the buff” at the desk don’t worry: it has nothing to do with nudity. The buff is the last part of the call slip. It remains on the shelf in the stacks in back holding the place where the book (or other item) used to be.

Red Flags
Not for offensive technical fouls, these red flags are also technically not made of paper. Instead, the red flags are plastic sheaths that hold the buff so that it can sit nicely on the shelf in the stacks. This holds the place for the book and attracts attention with its bright fire-engine red. When it comes time to return everything and all the books on all the shelves start to look the same, these red flags make it easier to find the exact spot on the shelf where the book came from.

The Exit Card
As a final check or security measure, we require that anytime readers want to leave the library building they must turn in all collection materials at the reference desk in the reading room and be issued an exit card. This card must be given to the receptionist before a reader will be allowed to leave the building. The exit card serves as our signal to the receptionist that readers have turned everything in and are free to go. Exit cards are sometimes known by other aliases at AAS, including “freedom pass” or “get-out-of-archive-free card.”

Tidbit You May Not Know: The AAS Exit Card got a makeover a couple of years ago by AAS’s own Jackie Penny and her husband. The current incarnation includes a part of the pledge users of the Bodleian Library in Oxford were required to sign, which reads (translated from the original Latin):

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

We thought it better to leave out the part suggesting readers might even consider bringing in “any fire or flame.” Better not to plant the suggestion.

Now you know more than you ever wanted to about the paper rituals we engage in at the desk! So next time you see us moving all these little slips of paper around or someone asks you for your pink slip or exit card, you’ll know we’re not just making you play an obsessive game consisting of passing little pieces of paper around. Rather, you (and those little slips of paper) are vital participants a system to ensure access to and the safe return of AAS’s priceless collection material. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

5 thoughts on “Paper Rituals”

  1. You don’t just have to *sign* that pledge at the Bodleian. You have to read it aloud, like you are reciting the Girl Scout Promise or something. They do give you the option of taking the oath in Latin, but I took it in English. I also got it on a totebag, although what I really wanted was a T-shirt. Speaking of which, I am still lobbying for an AAS T-shirt.

    1. Thanks for the correction, Melissa. And I’m with you on the AAS T-shirt. One of our staff members had a great idea for a T-shirt with a reproduction of our portrait of Cotton Mather and the text: “100% Cotton Mather.” Anyone else have ideas for AAS T-shirt slogans?

  2. I think we should have a t-shirt that says “Dome’s Eye View” with a view of the reading room from above and lots of little lightbulbs and exclamation marks above the tables.

    We should do a whole series!

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