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Archives & Special Collections Research

About this Guide

This guide provides an introductory overview of special collections and archives research, including pages on:

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to

Understanding Special Collections & Archives

These terms can be a bit nebulous and used in different ways in different contexts. Below is a basic breakdown of how they’re used in practice in the context of libraries, museums, academic institutions, and other repositories, to help you understand and navigate them for your research.


Special Collections

  • Hold distinctive, rare, and/or primary source material that is considered to have unique enduring value, and that requires special considerations related to collection development, preservation, and access.

  • Can (and often do) encompass archives, but also include non-institutional historical records and acquired material in a range of formats, including rare books, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, textiles, objects, and digital material.


Archive(s) / archive(s)

“The most central term to the field of archives is also the most fraught. The word “archives” carries within it twelve commonly used and sometimes overlapping meanings.” (Society of American Archivists)

The terms archive(s)/Archive(s) can be used a lot of different ways, especially in different disciplines. For the purposes of this guide, we can generally understand them as the following: 

  • archives

    • a collection of records or nonrecord material created or received by a person, family, or organization that have been preserved because of their enduring value.

  • Archive(s)

    • an organization dedicated to preserving such material, or

    • the division within an organization responsible for acquiring and maintaining the organization’s records of continuing value (i.e. institutional archives)

  • These collections can exist as:

    • Standalone entities or community archives (e.g. Lesbian Herstory Archives)

    • Governmental agencies (e.g. National Archives)

    • Corporate archives

    • Private archives

    • At educational institutions, cultural institutions (e.g. museums), or libraries


Different institutions and organizations determine internally what constitutes their special collections (which is why it is a bit of a fluid term) as well as how their special collections and archives are organized and managed. This is shaped by the history of an institution, its organizational structure, and how material has been acquired.

For example:

  • In some institutions, archives are encompassed within the broader special collections (e.g. NYU)

  • In others, archives and special collections are managed separately (e.g. BGC)

  • Sometimes different types of special collections and archival material might be divided into several different collections/departments (e.g. NYPL)

This is important to keep in mind not only for how you navigate these collections, but also because it can impact how you cite this kind of material.