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Special Collections and Archives

Your guide to unique and rare resources held by the Philip Robinson Library

Special Collections and Archives offer fantastic opportunities for original research for a whole range of subject areas. Encountering them can provide inspiration for creating innovative research questions and provide an unique insight into the focus of your research. By doing so, they can provide the evidence needed for you to critically explore your chosen subject and formulate your own informed response.

There is no single ‘correct’ way to use primary sources in your research and there are many possibilities to explore. From using statistics to demonstrate trends, to exploring lived history through personal diaries and oral histories to a study of the design traditions of watermarks.

Regardless of your approach, what is important is that you can justify the use of such resources in your methodology. To do this, you will need to be able to demonstrate how the evidence they contain will link to your research.

Working with primary sources can sometimes raise more questions than it answers. Be sure you remain focused, and don’t be afraid to dismiss a source that isn’t giving you what you expected. You can get an idea of how special collections and archives can be used in research in the case studies section below.

What can I find in Special Collections and Archives?

Special Collections is a broad term used to refer to published material which is considered unique or rare in some way. It is usually stored separately to a library’s main holdings, and can only be accessed under restrictions. It can refer to traditional printed books, newspapers, comics, music and spoken work recordings in all kinds of formats. It can also be applied to websites and other electronic publications.

The records which comprise an Archive can be of any type and format imaginable. Any document, hard copy or born digital, has the potential to become part of the historic record through its inclusion in an archive. Archives are often grouped by the body that created them, this could be individuals, families, organisations, businesses and charities. The resulting records could therefore include legal and institutional records, personal papers or ephemera.

Places that hold Special Collections and Archives will often specialize in specific subject areas, collecting primary sources that support the activities of the organisation they are a part of.

You can get an idea of the different types of material in Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections and Archives by browsing our digitised content on CollectionsCaptured, or visiting our blog

Finding relevant collections

The broader your contextual knowledge and understanding of the time, place and key actors your research relates to, the easier it will be to find relevant collections. Conducting wider reading of secondary sources before searching will help with this, and will also provide pointers to relevant primary sources cited by other researchers. Try making a note of any primary sources cited by other researchers in your reading, and use this information to help you search.

You should then consider what evidence you are hoping to find, and what sort of publications or documents such information might be contained in. It might help to think about who may have created or owned these.

Once you have an idea of the type of sources you are looking for, and who would have created and owned them, you can start thinking about where these might be held today. Archives and Special Collections are often grouped by and named after the organisation or individual who created the collection, so an idea of who or what will have created or brought together these items is really useful at this stage.

A good idea is to list of the key individuals and organisations who are likely to have been involved in the creation or use of the types of sources you are looking for. You can then use these to search for collections online.

Of course, you can also search using any related keywords, as you would when searching for secondary sources. Be aware though, that this might produce a lot of results that aren’t relevant to your research, or miss out collections which are.

Increasingly, primary sources are being made available to access remotely via databases and other online platforms. These can be found using the same strategies as described above.

Searching Special Collections and Archives

Once you’ve identified a collection that is of interest to you, you should be able to access some kind of finding aid. These come in a lot of different formats and might not be very easy to understand when you first encounter them. Take your time to learn how the finding aid for the collection you are looking at works – they will often include some explanation of how to use them effectively.

If you’re really struggling, get in touch with the repository who manages the collection (they should be listed in the finding aid), who will be happy to help you.

Searching within a finding aid will often use two approaches. The first is keyword searching. The second involves working down through a hierarchy in the finding aid to find what you are looking for. Archive hierarchies move from the general to the specific, as shown in this image.


Accessing Special Collections and Archives

If you have identified material that might be useful, there are some practical considerations to make before deciding whether or not to consult it for your research.

  • Is the material is digitised or can you request a digital copy? If so, are there any benefits to accessing the original in person?
  • If the organisation that holds the collection isn’t local, do you have the time and funding necessary to travel in order to access it?
  • You’ll usually need to request the material you want to view in advance, what is the process for this, and will it be available in time?
  • How long can you access the material, and do you think this will be enough time to find out everything you need to know? It would help to know how much content you are planning to look at.
  • Is the material you want to access from the collection in a language you can read? If it is handwritten, is it legible?
  • Are there any restrictions on accessing the original material? For example, older material might be considered too fragile to handle, and more recent records may have restrictions if they contain sensitive information. 

If you’re planning on making a visit to view material, it’s always a good idea to get in touch with the organisation that holds it as early as possible in your research to make sure you are fully prepared and have current information on access arrangements.

Evaluating primary sources

Critical analysis of a primary source is one of the first steps of reading a document that you might later use as evidence in your research. Once you have determined what the author's perspective, method and purpose were you can make assumptions about how they shaped the author's descriptions, ideas, concerns and arguments.

When you approach a primary source for the first time, it can be difficult to interpret all of the information there. Try to break your analysis down using the method below. Some of these questions might seem simple, but they are the basic building blocks from which you can develop a more complex analysis. It is a particularly useful approach to take when you are new to a topic or are presented with new material. Think about these questions when you read the document:


1. Who?

Who wrote the document? Is their name significant? Do they have any titles (for example, 'Sir', 'Dr') that could indicate their social status or their job?

2. When?

When was the document produced/published? Is there anything significant about the date?

3. Where?
Where was the document produced/published? Does this give you any clues as to why the document might have been made?

4. What?

What sort of document is it? Why do you think the author may have chosen this way to communicate their message? Is there anything about the type of document that gives you an idea of the intended audience?

5. Why?

This can be the most difficult question to answer, but you can use the answers to your other questions to help you. Why do you think the author made this document? What was its purpose? What message is the author trying to convey?


Physical and digitised sources

Where original sources are in a physical format, there are benefits and limitations to using the original physical sources or a digital copy. It’s important to consider what is the best option for your research.

Benefits of using original, physical items:

  • Physical context can tell us more e.g. part of a larger volume? Information on the reverse?
  • Size, paper quality, watermarks etc. can be significant
  • Physical condition can give clues e.g. is a document pristine and barely used or dog-eared and showing signs of heavy use? Does it have annotations?
  • Documents as historical artefacts – materiality

Benefits of using digital copies:

  • Allow remote viewing & repeat viewing more easily
  • Flexibility of access and use Can enlarge and zoom in on difficult-to-read areas
  • For typed documents, increased accessibility through text recognition software

This case study video gives some good examples of the benefits of using a physical source over a digitised copy.


Rare books

When referencing rare books, follow the referencing style which you are required to use for your programme of study, but take special care to include information on the particular copy or edition you are citing. You will also need to note which library holds this particular copy and any extra reference names/numbers they use when referring to this copy or the collection it is part of.

For example (using Harvard referencing):

Austin, J. (1897) Mansfield Park, Macmillan, London, 19th C. Coll. 823.74 AUS, held at Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.



When referencing archival documents and other types of archival material, follow the referencing style which you are required to use for your programme of study, but take special care to include the format of the document, which library or archive repository holds the document, and the unique reference number they have assigned to the document. 

For example (using Harvard referencing):

Baker Brown, (1917) Letter written by Thomas Baker Brown to his mother dated 1st November 1917, [manuscript], TBB/1/1/1/1/210, Baker Brown (Thomas) Archive, held at Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.


Digital copies 

When accessing digital copies of primary sources, via a database or other method, you should follow the referencing style for the type of source, but include information about where you accessed it. This will include a URL and, if you have accessed the source from a published database, you should include the name and publisher of the database as well. Many databases will feature inbuilt referencing software that will give you all the details you need.

For example (using Harvard referencing):

Collard, W. (no date: 1800-1899) Illustration of Butcher Market, Avenue, [printed engraving], ILL/11/204, Local Illustrations, held at Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186. Available at: (Accessed 12 May 2020).


Resources to help:


Case Study: School of English


Case Study: School of History
Help and advice

If you would like any help and advice on using Special Collections and Archives or you would like to book an appointment with one of the Special Collections team, please use our contact details below:

   Reading Room, Level 1, Philip Robinson Library

  +44 191 208 7712

  Email the Special Collections Team