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Using Archives In Your Research: Special Collections Explained

What is a Special Collection?

Special Collections generally refers to a section of a library which houses books that need special care due to their age, rarity and value. Like archive materials, rare and old books need to be kept in controlled and secure environments, with special care taken when handling them.

However, it is common at some universities to use “Special Collections” as an umbrella term for those sections of the library which are separate to the main holdings. So, for example, a Special Collections Department in this context may include sub-departments for rare books, archives, an art collection and a maps collection.

Book published in 1594

An early printed book from DMU special collections. This one dates to 1594.

What would I find in Special Collections?

This will vary depending on the institution, but usually:

  • Old books, including early printed editions and even handwritten works
  • First editions
  • Rare editions e.g. from private press
  • Books with high monetary value
  • Collections which need to be kept together
  • Collections of works on particular subjects
  • Books with an important previous owner
  • Unusual aspect in the production of the book e.g. rare binding
  • Physical condition needing additional care e.g. loose pages

Fashion volumes kept in Special Collections because their large, unwieldy size makes them unsuitable for the open shelves

DMU’s Special Collections

At DMU Special Collections comprises books and journals held in the Archives Reading Room in 00.21, on the lower ground floor. It includes material donated as a collection and therefore kept together, such as the Kodak Collection from the research and development library of the photographic company, or the National Youth Agency library of books relating to youth work. Other material is old, rare or of high value. Some is oversized or in a physical condition that makes it better to keep it securely in Special Collections.

Strengths of the collection:

  • Photography
  • Fashion and textiles
  • Art, design and architecture
  • Sports history
  • Women’s magazines
  • Youth work
  • Jainism
  • History of Leicester and Leicestershire

Researchers are welcome to drop in to browse Special Collections within our usual opening hours, although it can be worth making an appointment as the reading room is not always open. It can be possible to photocopy from Special Collections depending on the condition of the book. It is recommended to bring a camera in case it isn’t feasible to photocopy. Please note photography of a book or journal is subject to the same copyright regulations as photocopying.

Special Collections at DMU

The Special Collections shelves at DMU.

How do I use Special Collections?

Access to Special Collections will be similar to accessing an archive collection. The materials will be kept in climate controlled storage and will be accessed in a separate reading room to the main collection. You may need to book an appointment in advance and complete a reader registration form. You are likely to be issued guidelines about how to handle the books so that they are not damaged – possibly even wearing white gloves. There may be limits on reprographics – for example photocopying may not be possible.

If you are not certain have a good look at the website of the Special Collections you are visiting, and contact them in advance. It is better to send a quick email than arrive out of the blue and find they are closed or there is no research space available, or the item you want is being used in an exhibition.

DMU’s Special Collections research area

Special Collections: Images

Advertisement in 1875 Photographic Almanac, part of the Kodak Collection at DMU