One of the reasons I chose my particular project was that the archives were relatively accessible. And as far as archives go, the archives at the Shanghai Library are well organized, easy to maneuver, and (so I've heard) relatively cheap to copy. That being said, I am not at all looking forward to working with other archives, because I've run into a series of problems. In the scope of things, these problems are probably pretty minor, especially since I've managed to overcome all of them. However, as a break from my research notes, and for the amusement of those who have never used archives before (or perhaps for the amusement of those who have...remember what it is like to be in my position?) these are my experiences at the archives so far.
First of all, trying to figure out how to even check out regular books at the Shanghai library was a hassle. Instead of looking up a number, finding the book, and checking it out, for books published after 1949 but before 2003 (with some exceptions), you have to look up the book on a computer, request it (which is a bit of a Byzantine process...it is not as simple as pressing "request,") wait 20 minutes for your name to come up on a large screen near the counter where a dumbwaiter brings the books, then you can check them out. I am very glad to have encountered another China scholar at the library that day who explained the whole process to me. Then there are other strange rules; for the English books published after 2003, you can check them out, but only from 1:30-5. Why the time limit? I have no idea.
Then there are the archives. The archives are not catalogued online, but instead are still organized by card catalogue. There are three catagorizations, by subject, by title, and by author. You then fill out a yuelandan form (in which you write the book number, the title, and the publisher) and exchange your library card for a number metal board. You then take the small metal board thing, give it to the woman in the archive reading room, and once she has put your metal board into the correct slot, you sit and wait for them to call your number, and they give you the books. This process may be simple enough, but it was confusing to figure out for the first time with no written instructions, with Chinese abilities that have limited vocabulary (such as, what the names of the rooms are, the word for "request" or "catalogue" or even the yuelandan), and with a staff that does not particularly want to explain the whole process. Then, even after all of this, at least in my case, they didn't even have many of the books I needed. It took a lot of prodding and asking questions until someone finally explained to me that they were not giving me 3/4 of the books I needed because they were being digitized. There was one worker who took pity on me and explained that many of the documents I needed were being digitized, but if I explained to other members of the library staff my situation, they would be able to get the books for me. So that is exactly what I did; I went to a small room on a different floor of the library and asked one of the professors there to help me get these books. He wrote a small note on my yuelandan, and after that I was able to get the books.
On top of all of this, I never realized how quickly copying fees could add up. Even if I am quite frugal with my requests for copying, I usually end up spending nearly 20 USD every time I go. The price is 20 cents a page, which adds up really quickly. And for materials which you cannot copy, you can take pictures of them, but they charge 2 kuai a picture (about 30 cents), which I learned only after I had taken nearly 100 photos.
At this point, I feel like I have the system down, at least in the modern archive room. There are still areas of the library I have yet to explore, and once I need documents from those areas, I am sure I can tackle them. I just thought I would share my experiences, and after 4-5 years of graduate school I will look back on this and laugh...