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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What Are Special Collections?

Most of the larger libraries and archives of the world have a storage area set apart from the regular books and other materials where they keep items that are either very monetarily valuable, in a delicate condition or are extremely rare. These sections of the libraries are usually called "Special Collections." In most cases, access to the items in these areas is restricted in some way. The Special Collections are not the same as libraries that have "closed stacks" restricting patron access to the books and other materials and requiring all of the patrons to request items for retrieval by library staff. Some libraries and archives even have the items in their special collections separately cataloged.

Smaller local libraries may also have a section of books or other items that are restricted from circulation and not kept on the regular shelves.

In my experience, most of the genealogists I talk to have little or no experience in researching in a special collections library. The first challenge is finding it. There may or may not be a designation or sign acknowledging that a special collections library exists. For example, the Library of Congress has most of its collection in closed stacks, but the Special Collections part of the Library is ent

Another example, the state of North Carolina has over 80 colleges and universities. Nearly all of these entities have libraries and special collections. Think about it. If you had ancestors in North Carolina, have you check the catalogs of all these libraries? Now, there is a North Carolina Digital Heritage Center that has a huge online collection of some of these items but this is only a small part of these valuable collections.

I have written about this experience previously, but while I was researching my great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, I found a collection of records from one of his sons in the University of Utah Special Collections Library consisting of 21.25 linear feet of records. These records contained information about almost all the people who had lived in the small Arizona town where Henry lived. I also found most of the same collection in the Northern Arizona University Special Collections Library.

Since the items in the special collections libraries do not circulate, you may have to plan on spending the time at the location of the library looking at the items in a special reading room like the one shown above in the Library of Congress.

To find a special collections library simply do an online search for the location, i.e. the state or county, with the words "special collections." You may be surprised at what you will find.

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