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Guide to Research Using Special Collections

Guide to conducting research in University Archives, The Poetry Collection, Rare and Special Books, and History of Medicine. Questions should be directed to Marie Elia, Archivist for Special Collections:
Last Updated: Apr 11, 2024 1:03 PM

What is it? Where is it?
Archives are the documentary by-product of human activity retained for their long-term value. Archives refers to the records; an archives is an organization that collects these materials.

A manuscript is a handwritten and/or unpublished document, sometimes referring to an author's draft submitted for publication. A manuscript collection generally refers to "papers"—records created and originally kept by an individual or a family, as opposed to ones created by an organization. In a rare books context, a manuscript (sometimes illuminated) usually refers to a book written by hand before the invention of mechanical printing.

Digitization refers to the process of creating a digital surrogate of an analog item. Digital archives are materials that are "born" digital; they were created as digital files and are preserved in a digital format, although access to them may require reformatting. Digital collections can be a combination of materials that have been digitized for access or exhibit and items that were born digital.

Published materials in all collections and most rare books at UB are in the Libraries catalog. Collection-level records for archival materials are in the catalog and link to our finding aids, documents that provide more in-depth description of the contents.
Special Collections houses most of UB Libraries’ primary source materials. Primary sources differ from secondary sources in that they are created at the time under study and serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, idea, or work. Primary sources include manuscript and archival materials in any format, such as paper, audio/visual, born-digital, and may include letters, literary manuscripts, diaries, clothing and personal belongings, artifacts, and printed material. Secondary sources are usually scholarly works of analysis and criticism, such as an academic publication or a literary work. Tertiary sources include encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Often, the terms “special collections” and “archives” are used interchangeably but can have different meanings. An institutional archives collects the permanently valuable records of an organization, business, or government. An archives identifies, appraises, preserves, and makes available documentary materials of long-term value to the organization or public that the archives serves. In this way, an institutional archives collects internally. Special collections usually refers to collecting repositories. A collecting repository, such as a manuscript repository, collects externally, including materials from individuals, families, and organizations other than the parent organization. A hybrid repository collects both internally and externally.

Special Collections is the UB Libraries department that houses the institutional archives as well as several collecting repositories.

University Archives is a hybrid repository, collecting both the records of the university as well as private papers of administrators, faculty members and other individuals associated with UB and historical manuscript collections that complement current or past faculty research interests or document regional organizations and events.

The Poetry Collection is a collecting repository that collects material documenting the creation, publication, performance, readership, and study of 20th and 21st century poetry in English, including literary manuscripts, photographs, artwork, audio/visual material, and the records of literary publishers, and an extensive print collection of first editions and other titles, little literary magazines, broadsides, and anthologies.

The Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection is also a collecting repository, focusing on historical materials in all areas of the health sciences and includes manuscript collections, diaries and ledgers, books and pamphlets, and an extensive collection of artifacts. As a collection rooted in the UB School of Medicine, it also houses documentation of UB’s history from its founding as a medical school.

Rare and Special Books at UB is a valuable teaching collection for history of the book, housing 17th century folios of William Shakespeare; first editions of many significant literary works; works by fine presses such as Kelmscott, Doves, Roycroft, and Ashendene; and other collections artifacts and drawings. While books in general are considered secondary sources, rare books collections contain unique items as well as documentation that functions as a primary source, such as memoirs and other published documents. Rare and Special Books also holds examples of incunabula, or books printed before 1501 in Europe, which in themselves serve as primary source artifacts.