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.
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.
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 key words, 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. Our subject support pages also include information on primary source databases you can access through the Library.
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.
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.
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.