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Using Archives & Manuscripts: Visiting Special Collections

Overview of using archives and manuscripts, including tips for research visits, handling materials, and quoting and citing in academic work or publications.

Visiting Special Collections

It is in the special collections of libraries that researchers will find rare books, manuscripts, organizational records, posters, photographs, oral history interviews, and other unique materials. These collections have rules and procedures that may differ from those of general libraries.

Special collections materials usually do not circulate, for example, and researchers may have to make appointments, register to use collections, and request items using call slips and forms. Collections may be stored offsite and require prior notice for access.

It is always a wise policy to visit a special collection's website and.or contact library staff prior to visiting to find out about access policies and protocols.

Reading Room Protocols

Reader Services

Access Restrictions

 

Image:  Tamiment Library, NYU

Reading Room Protocols

Because of the unique, rare, and sometimes fragile nature of the materials housed in special collections, researchers must comply with some basic guidelines when visiting them.

Regulations vary by repository and usually include signing in daily, registering, showing a traceable photo ID, and using pencils to take notes. 

Materials usually do not circulate outside the library, and food and drink, coats, and large bags are rarely allowed in special collections reading rooms. 

Some repositories require that researchers make appointments to use manuscripts or archival materials.

Special collections are usually shelved in closed stacks areas and retrieved by library staff for researchers who have filled out call slips or request forms. 

Visit the websites of NYU Special Collections for information.

Reader Services

Duplicating services such as photocopying, photography, scanning, and microfilming are often available to researchers for a fee in special collections.

Contact staff and/or consult the repository’s websites for details.

NYU Special Collections

Access Restrictions

Depending on the repository and/or the collection, access to certain materials may be restricted. Some repositories open their collections to researchers at the graduate level or above.

Others require researchers to apply to use a library before granting them access.

Donor restrictions might require researchers to request permission in writing before they may use a collection. Or researchers may be able to use a collection but not reproduce anything from it.

Certain materials might be accessible only by permission.

Consult the collection finding aid to see if any restrictions apply.

Materials might be housed at another location and require several days’ notice to retrieve.

Consult a repository’s home page for details on access, reading room hours, ID requirements, etc., before visiting.

You might have to use a surrogate format (i.e., photocopies, microfilm, digital files) if the originals are in fragile condition.

Electronic finding aids for archival collections contain a section that details any restrictions governing use of the collection. Be certain to read that section carefully.

To make the most of your research visit, always contact a special collection prior to visiting, especially if you are traveling a long distance.

NYU Special Collections, a member of the Association of College and Research Libraries, abides by the Joint Statement on Access to Original Research Materials Approved by the ACRL Standards & Accreditation Committee, ACRL Board of Directors, and the ALA Standards Committee, February, 1994.

Reference Assistance

It is always a good idea to consult a special collection's website and contact library staff before you visit to find out about access policies and to make certain that the collections you need will be available to you. 

Archivists and librarians can help you navigate finding aids and offer research assistance. 

NYU Special Collections.