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In many libraries and the field of library science, special collections (often abbreviated to Spec. Coll. or S.C.) is the name applied to materials housed in a separate unit with specialized security and user services. These materials can be in any format (including but not limited to rare books, manuscripts, photographs, archives, ephemera), and are generally characterized by their artifactual or monetary value, physical format, uniqueness or rarity, and/or an institutional commitment to long-term preservation and access. Individual libraries or archival institutions determine for themselves what constitutes its own special collections, resulting in a somewhat mutable definition. For research libraries, a special collections area or division can be a fundamental part of their mission.
The primary function of a special collections division is to provide researchers access to items while ensuring their proper use, storage and protection from theft and environmental damage. Items in a special collection are usually stored in closed stacks (not directly accessible to library patrons) which contain noncirculating items, meaning that items cannot be loaned or otherwise removed from the premises. Access to materials usually is under supervision. Items are often available for use only to individuals conducting research on a related topic. Depending on the policies of an institution holding special collections, researchers may be asked to present identification cards, letters of reference, or other credentials to gain access.
Most special collections are stored in areas in which the temperature, humidity, illumination, and other environmental conditions are carefully monitored to ensure the integrity of materials, and adequate security is provided to protect the materials from unauthorized access, theft, and vandalism. Special reading rooms are often provided to minimize the risk to holdings while being consulted by patrons, which are sometimes monitored by library personnel who also provide reference assistance and relay requests for materials. Rules often apply to use of materials in order to protect against inadvertent damage; Writing implements which use ink are very commonly prohibited, as well as flash photography, use of cell phones, and the presence of food and beverages. Protective gloves are sometimes required when consulting particularly delicate materials, and some collections may require that books with damaged spines be read only while in special cradles.
For example, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University operates under a closed stack system, and rigorous security rules allow carefully controlled access to materials in a spartan subterranean reading room, under video surveillance.
Complete collections of hundreds or even thousands of books may be bequeathed to libraries in wills, sometimes on the condition that the collection be kept together within the library rather than dispersed throughout the collection or the parent institution's (if present) holdings. Special collections departments are often able to accommodate such requests, although constraints on storage space and other factors sometimes make doing so unfeasible. One factor that may be particularly influential is whether or not the subject matter represented by the donated items falls within the intended scope of the collection's holdings.
- The protagonist of the 2004 novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry De Tamble, is a Special Collections librarian for the Newberry Library in Chicago.
- ARL Task Force on Special Collections (2003), Special Collections Statement of Principles: Research Libraries and the Commitment to Special Collections, Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries
- Cave, Roderick (1982), Rare Book Librarianship (2nd, revised ed.), London: Clive Bingley, ISBN 0851573282
- Dooley, Jackie M.; Luce, Katherine (2010), Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives, Dublin, OH: OCLC Research
- Panitch, Judith M. (2001), Special Collections in ARL Libraries: Results of the 1998 Survey Sponsored by the ARL Research Collections Committee, Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries