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McCormick Library of Special Collections: Introduction to Special Collections

What are Special Collections?

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 These items are often rare or unpublished, and sometimes completely unique.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

Other Related Collections at Northwestern University Libraries

There are special collections materials available in other divisions of the library, including:

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary Source: A first-hand, original account, record, or evidence about a person, place, object, or an event. Oral histories, objects, photographs, and documents such as newspapers, ledgers, census records, diaries, journals, and inventories, are primary sources. 

Secondary Source: An account, record, or evidence derived from an original or primary source. Textbooks are secondary sources.

Every piece of paper that people leave behind is full of clues. From diaries and letters to newspapers and census reports, documents tell us about the circumstances of everyday life and about significant events. Historians spend a lot of time in archives studying all kinds of documentary evidence and glean rich information from the written word. To be most useful, documents must be studied carefully and critically. While it might be clearly stated who the writer is and who the audience is, the intended message may not be obvious. Researchers, whether student or professional, must look beyond the intended meaning to consider hidden agendas, unintended meanings, and bias or point of view of the creator of the document. Other elements to analyze include tone, grammar, word choice, and style.This information will enable the researcher to interpret the document with a critical eye. Like all other primary sources, documents must be studied in conjunction with other evidence.While documents often reveal information, it is important to verify the information with photographs, objects, oral histories, or other available sources.

Source: Engaging Students with Primary Sources, Smithsonian National Museum of American History (