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Humanities Research: Sources and Strategies: Special Collections

Tips for Special Collections

Academic libraries and other research institutions often maintain "special collections," "rare books collections," or archives that collect rare or specialized materials on a certain subject. Such collections are important to researchers and scholars.


Finding rare-books and archival collections related to your topic:

  • Google: enter your topic search terms, plus "archive" or "collection" or "papers" or "documents." (Caveat: the term "archives" is sometimes used for back issues of journals, and "collections" for publishers' series on a topic. These are not the kind of collections we're talking about: we mean collections housed in a library or archive. So look for evidence of a physical place -- hours of operation, street address, directions to the place, a hosting institution like a university/college, museum, research center, etc.)
  • Databases on history (Historical Abstracts, America History & Life) sometimes indicate, under "Notes," an archival collection that an author used.
  • Secondary sources (books, journal articles): bibliography or footnotes may cite archival collections.
  • Tertiary (reference) sources: research guides  may cite archival collections. Subject-specific encyclopedias may have an entry for "Libraries" or "Archives" that list rare-books or archival collections.


First editions:

  • These show important evidence of an author's "final intent" -- how he/she meant it to appear to the public. The first edition is typically printed in consultation with the author, who proof-reads the "galley proof" (the first copy).
  • Early novels were often issued in 3 volumes, or unbound. The first edition shows how a book appeared to the author and to his/her audience.

Special Collections: Resources

Mindmap: Useful Keywords for Searching Library Catalogs  (see "primary sources")

 Finding Primary Source Documents  (UNC-Chapel Hill's tutorial)


Indexes to special collections:

  • Index of English Literary Manuscripts
  • Subject Collections: a Guide to Special Book Collections... in the United States and Canada
  • Google (use "archive," "collection," "papers," or "documents" as search terms).


Selected archives:

  • US National Archives
  • Library of Congress
  • Local historical societies: search place name (town, county, state) and "historical society"
  • Presidential libraries, private libraries: search name and "library"

Special Collections: Should I do a Broad or Narrow Search?

Rare-books collections and archives typically collect materials in a general subject area; within that, they often focus on a geographical region or time period. (For instance, ZSR's Rare Books Collection specializes in "American, Irish, and British authors of the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries"; our Baptist Historical Collection collects materials relating to Baptists in North Carolina.) So if you're taking a subject-based approach to identifying collections, you can use a moderately broad search strategy, adding keywords to reflect any geographical, chronological, or other aspects of your topic.

There are also collections devoted to a single person. So if your topic centers around a specific writer, artist, historical figure, etc., try searching their name combined with keywords for collections (see Lecture Points).