What are Special Collections

Special Collections are those collections of books and archives considered important (or "special") enough to be preserved for future generations. They are often very old, rare or unique, or fragile. Usually they have significant research and/or cultural value.

Such collections are often the personal libraries or archives of individuals. Usually named after the original owner, these collections have been consciously kept together and may reflect their interests. Special Collections can also be "artificially" created by institutions to create primary research resources to support the needs of their user groups - to support teaching and learning in the case of universities, for example. Sometimes the separate items within a collection are not in themselves "rare" or "valuable" but gain importance from the context in which they were collected or because they form a critical mass of material on a particular topic (i.e. the sum is greater than the parts). 

To help preserve material for the future, Special Collections are managed and housed separately from the more mainstream collections so that environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and light levels can be carefully controlled and monitored. To keep the collections safe and secure, they are usually available to researchers on a reference only basis in a designated reading room. There are special rules and regulations to ensure the material is handled correctly and to safeguard it for the future. Remember that the rules and regulations are there to help preserve the material and not to inconvenience you.

If you have not used a Special Collections reading room or Archives repository before, or if you are not sure about anything, there will be a supervisor on duty who will be able to assist you in finding and using the material.

You don't need to make an appointment to come to the University of Glasgow Special Collections. But if you are not a member of our University, please follow our guidelines for accessing Special Collections. In some (usually smaller) Special Collections, an advance appointment is necessary before material can be accessed; sometimes proof of identity or letters of reference are required. Always check what the local regulations and requirements are before visiting.

Engaging with primary resource material can be an immensely rewarding experience: come and visit us on level 12 of the library to find out more.

If you have enquiries about your own rare books, we have provided some general advice that may help.