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McCormick Library Instruction Resources

Quick guide for faculty, students,and other researchers on how we can support instruction using Specal Collections and Archives materials.

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 These items are often rare or unpublished, and sometimes completely unique.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 collection highlights.

Music Library collections include rare books and published scores, including libretti and printed music as well as facsimiles of manuscripts of other primary sources. The original archival and manuscript collections represent multiple 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.

If you need an introductory guide to help you begin the research process, see the NU Step-by-Step Guide to Start Your Research.

Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary Sources: Original documents, evidence, first-hand accounts, created or experienced contemporaneously with the topic being researched.  

Examples: letters, diaries, student organization records, scrapbooks, photographs, maps, land records, blueprints, Greek organization records, course bulletins & catalogs, artifacts, residence hall records, oral histories, films, audio recordings, newsletters, yearbooks, and newspaper articles written during the time being researched. 

Secondary Sources: Works that are not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the topic being researched. Instead, they rely on primary sources for information. They typically analyze and interpret primary sources. 

Examples: books, journal articles, magazine and newspaper articles, biographies. 

Additional Resources: 

Discovering, Accessing, and Identifying 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

Analyzing Sources

Here are some questions to keep in mind when analyzing primary sources: 

  • Who is the author or creator?
  • When was the primary source created?
  • Who was the intended audience? 
  • What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
  • What was going on historically when this source was created?
  • What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?
  • What are some limitations of the source?
  • How does this source relate to other sources you're consulting? 
  • Is this source reliable?
  • Does your understanding of the source fit with scholar's interpretations, or does it challenge their argument? 

Additional Resource: 

Guidelines and FAQs for Class Visits

  • Directions to Classrooms and Reading Room

    • The Deering 200 classroom is on the main/entrance level of Deering Library, the older, Collegiate Gothic library building.  As you enter through the Deering Meadow doors you take a right and then a left and the room is at the end of the hall on the southern end of the building.

    • The McCormick Library Reading Room is on the third/top floor of Deering Library in the northwest corner of the building.

  • Classroom Guidelines

    • Please arrive with clean, dry hands and leave coats, bags, and any liquids on the shelves and/or coatracks outside the classroom door. Laptops are fine and photographs are ok (with flash turned off). Any written notes should be done with pencil (we have some available in the room). Further handling guidelines will be provided depending on the material being used for the class session.

  • Reading Room Guidelines

  • How to Create a Researcher Account

  • Requesting Books, Archives, and More