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Research Guides

Guide to Research in Special Collections: Home

This guide will show you how to search Special Collections materials.


Thank you for your interest in Special Collections! Before coming to visit us, it's often helpful to figure out what it is you want to see when you get here. In order to do that, you'll need to search our collections online.

Please also make sure to check our hours online and take a look at our page on using the collections before you arrive!

Frequently Used Terms

Below is a list of terms that are used throughout this guide. For more definitions, we recommend that you visit the Society of American Archivists' (SAA) Dictionary of Archives Terminology.

Finding Aid

Credit to Researching Family & Local History presentation by Allee Monheim and Crystal Rodgers

  • Collection Information
    • This section provides general information such as the title, date range, restriction information, size (typically in linear feet), and the collection and accession number(s) for collections. On Archives West, this is listed as Overview of the Collection.
  • Restrictions
    • This section describes restrictions that users may encounter when accessing archival collections. Restrictions include actions that need to be taken before viewing materials such as signing a form or receiving curator or donor permission. Public records (referring to records created by public institutions) are often restricted due to inclusion of personal information and may require additional processing or curator permission before viewing. On Archives West, this information is listed under Overview of the Collection as Access Restrictions.
  • Biographical/Administrative History 
    • This section provides background information about the person(s), and entities represented in a collection. This section is not included in all finding aids. When it is included, the length and detail will vary greatly depending on the finding aid. On Archives West, this is listed as Biographical Note.
  • Scope and Content 
    • This section describes the format, content, use of a collection as well as the persons, organizations, and events involved. If a collection contains multiple accession numbers, it is common for each one to have its one scope and content section. On Archives West, this is listed as Scope and Content Note.
  • Administrative Information
    • This section provides information about the acquisition (such as donor information), arrangement (such as a list of all the accessions for a collection), and processing of a collection. On Archives West, this is listed as Administration Information.
  • Container List/Inventory
    • In this section you will find more detailed information about the contents of a collection, typically including descriptions of boxes and folders, and sometimes items in a collection. The level of detail in this section can vary widely within finding aids. On Archives West, this information is listed under a header with the titles Container(s), Description and Date. 

Special Collections

The term Special Collections refers to a department in a library or other institution that holds unique, rare, and unpublished materials such as archival materials, rare books, manuscripts, oral histories and more. Materials housed in Special Collections typically do not circulate, meaning they cannot leave the library or institution they are housed in. 


A collection is a set of archival materials that are usually united by a shared quality such as creator, subject, or topic. 

Accession Number

An accession number is an identifier used to locate and track archival collections within a library or other repository. 

Call Number

A call number is an identifier used to locate and track books within a library or other repository.