Focus on Special Collections

Welcome to our Focus on Special Collections blog! In this blog, we will be looking at what special collections are, and why they are useful for research.

what are special collections?

Special collections are made up of materials that are stored under controlled conditions, and with controlled access, usually for one or more reasons:

  • Age or condition: the materials may be very old and /or in poor physical condition
  • Rarity: the materials may be very rare, even unique
  • Dimensions: the materials may be of a shape and size that is difficult to store in the usual library setting
  • Condition set down by donor: the person who donated the materials may have specified that the materials be stored as a special collection

As the name suggests, the materials in a special collection usually have something in common. A collection could be the archive of a person, or an organisation, or materials covering a specific historical time period, or subject area. Many collections contain primary sources.

a handwritten manuscript, written in ink on lined paper, resting on a grey folder. The paper is old and discoloured and the corners of the pages are creased.
Manuscript of The Fashion in Shrouds, by Margery Allingham. Allingham Collection, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex

Who are special collections for?

Special collections are for everyone! If you have a research interest, if you are looking for a topic to investigate, or if you are seeking inspiration, you are welcome to use the collections. It doesn’t matter what level you are at; undergraduate, postgraduate, staff, first year or final year, you are all welcome.

A leaflet advertising the first annual convention of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association in 1966. The leaflet is white and narrow and the type is black
Leaflet from the archive of the NVALA, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex

Why use special collections?

  • Good potential for original research: using the collections gives you a chance to break new ground in your subject area, if you choose a topic that hasn’t been investigated before
  • Primary sources: many of the collections contain primary source materials, materials created by the people, or during the time period that is the subject of the collection.
  • Support: support from expert staff is available when you use a special collection.
  • Improved access: digitisation projects and online search tools have made collections much easier to access
marzipan busts of Roy Jenkins and David Owen, former leaders of the SDP. The Roy Jenkins bust has discoloured and is dark brown, but the Owen bust is still the usual colour of marzipan. They are in transparent plastic boxes
Marzipan busts of Roy Jenkins and David Owen. SDP Archive, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex

So, What is in the collections?

The library on our Colchester campus houses more than 70 individual special collections. Collections range in size from a single box of documents, to over a thousand books, and cover a range of subject areas and time periods. The collections contain a huge variety of materials including artworks, books, data, letters, manuscripts, photographs, press-cuttings, maps, and even binoculars! To find out about the collections, visit our webpage and choose a subject tab to see what is available for the subject you are interested in. Printed books from the collections can be found using the library search on the library homepage.

screenshot of the special collections homepage, with an arrow indicating the subject tabs

How to access Special Collections:

If you are interesting in using one of the collections for your research, email the team at to book an appointment. We hope to see you soon!

engraved illustration of an elephant. the elephant has a rounded back, which is emphasised by the curved lines of the engraving. It has visible toes, a curved trunk which is touching the ground and a bad-tempered expression
Illustration from The Holy Bible: containing the bookes of the Old and New Testament, 1660. Russell Collection, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex

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