Special collections

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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 libraries or library units that house materials requiring specialized security and user services.


Materials housed in special collections can be in any format (including rare books, manuscripts, photographs, archives, ephemera, and digital records), 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.[1] They can also include association with important figures or institutions in history, culture, politics, sciences, or the arts.[2] Individual libraries or archival institutions determine for themselves what constitute their own special collections,[3] resulting in a somewhat mutable definition.[4] For research libraries, a special collections area or division can be a fundamental part of their mission.[5] Some special collections are standalone institutions that are privately funded, such as the Newberry Library or the American Antiquarian Society while others are part of a larger institution, such as the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Many American university special collections grew out of the merging of rare book rooms and manuscripts departments in a university's library system.

In contrast to general (or circulating) libraries, the uniqueness of special collections means that they are not easily replaced (if at all) and therefore require a higher level of security and handling.[6]


The primary function of a special collections division is to foster research by providing researchers access to items while ensuring their longevity. Many staff members involved with special collections have either advanced degrees or specialized training related to the collections for which they are responsible.[7]


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 is usually under supervision. 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.[2]

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.

Offsite storage facilities have become increasingly popular among institutions holding special collections. Most libraries consider it their mandate to maintain acquisition of new collections, although the limitations of their physical plants may not be able to handle all that is acquired. Storing materials offsite allows flexibility in how libraries design and apportion their space and provides security for materials. The 2010 "Taking Our Pulse" report cites a survey in which 67% of responding institutions use offsite facilities, with another 5% in planning stages.[8]

Reading room characteristics[edit]

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.

Cultural references[edit]

  • 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.
  • The plot of the film National Treasure centered on a hidden message on the back of an artifact at the United States National Archives.
  • The television movies The Librarian,
  • The plot of Deborah Harkness's All Souls trilogy of novels about vampires circles around a manuscript at the Bodleian Library, and include lengthy scenes in the library's reading room.
  • A. S. Byatt's novel Possession involves real and fictionalized special collections curators seeking to acquire two poets' correspondence for libraries in Britain and America. The American institution in the novel is rumored to represent the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.[9]
  • David Baldacci's The Collectors opens with the murder of the curator of the rare book collections at the Library of Congress.
  • Ian Caldwell and Dustan Thomason's novel Rule of Four.
  • The plot of Dan Brown's Angel's and Demons takes the main character to the Vatican Library.
  • Elisabeth Kostova's novel The Historian involves rare books and special collections libraries throughout its plot.
  • In The Thirteenth Tale (2006) by Diane Setterfield, the main character visits the archives of a newspaper while researching the life of a reclusive author.
  • Archival romance is a genre term used to describe novels set around archives.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dooley 2010, p. 16.
  2. ^ a b ARL Task Force on Special Collections 2003.
  3. ^ Cave 1982, p. 11.
  4. ^ Panitch, p. 4, 9.
  5. ^ ARL Task Force on Special Collections 2002.
  6. ^ "Research Using Primary Sources: Special Collections," University of Maryland (accessed 5 February 2016).
  7. ^ Association of Research Libraries 2008.
  8. ^ Dooley 2010, p. 32.
  9. ^ Barnard, Megan (2007). Collecting the Imagination: First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 95. 
  10. ^ Keen, Suzanne (2003). Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.