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McCormick Library Distance Learning with Primary Sources

What are Special Collections and Archives?

Special Collections is a term that can encompass a great variety of materials, including books, archives, manuscripts, and artifacts. These items are often rare or unpublished, and sometimes completely unique. Because of this, special collections are subject to higher security procedures and may have handling restrictions. They are stored in secure, staff-only areas and do not circulate, meaning they can only be viewed in the reading room under supervision.

Sometimes the format of the materials is the reason they are placed in special collections. Photographs, posters, handwritten texts, or ephemera can require special storage environments and usage rules to allow for long-term preservation and continued access

Special collections can also consist of a grouping of materials focused on a specific theme or topic, such as a literary movement or women’s rights. Sometimes it is comprehensiveness and context, rather than the rarity of individual components, that gives a special collection its value. Repositories will often specialize on a limited number of subjects to focus their collection building and to distinguish themselves from other institutions.

Archives are collections of materials related by theme, origin, or purpose. The term "archive" or "archives" can also refer to the institution or building in which the material is housed.

The Northwestern University Archives, established in 1935, houses records, publications, photographs, and other materials pertaining to every aspect of Northwestern’s history, including the papers of faculty, biographic information on Northwestern alumni, a complete run of Daily Northwestern issues, a complete set of catalogs and bulletins from each of the schools and more than 250,000 photographs.

For a broader list of materials, browse the Archival and Manuscript collection portal, or view some of our unprocessed Manuscript and Archive listings.

Music Library collections include rare books and published scores, including libretti and printed music as well as facimilies of manuscripts of other primary sources. The original archival and manuscript collections represent mutiple styles and eras, including the archives of experimental musician John Cage, collections of music collectors such as Hans Moldenhauer, musical autographs, and general music manuscripts and correspondence from the 14th century to the present. 

Northwestern performance recordings from 1995 are available to browse in NUsearch. Performances from 2006-2016 are available digitally in the AV Repository.

Identifying and Using Archives and Primary Sources

Identifying Sources of Information


  • How your topic would be documented. What kinds of sources are likely to contain relevant information: letters, diaries, founding documents, newspapers, reports, etc.
  • Who or what would have produced or generated information about your topic: Individuals, groups, committees, clubs, corporations, government agencies, etc.
  • Connections: Who was involved? Were they affiliated with a group, organization, religious order, academic institution that has archives?

Keep in mind that relevant sources may not be in a single collection.

  • Some archives specialize in certain types of collections –labor-related, Chicago literary figures, etc.
  • Special collections hold manuscripts, documents, rare books, other formats covering a wide range of eras and topics.
  • State or local historical societies usually collect papers and official records that reflect the geographic location.
  • University archives focus on people and activities that are directly connected to the institution.
  • Check bibliographies in publications - look for “archival sources”, “unpublished sources,” etc.
  • Ask about other repositories or resources the archivist may know about.

Online Databases & Sources for Archival Research

Essential Databases

A few examples of collections or portals focusing on regions, countries, or fields of research


Some Historic Newspapers and Periodicals

Other Sites of Interest