What’s So Special about Special Libraries?

If you aren't exploring special libraries, you're missing out!

You just might find a library centered around your favorite topic!

The goal of a typical library collection is to provide the largest variety of materials to the diverse populations it serves. Librarians want everyone who comes through their doors to have something to match their tastes and interests. However, hidden in the walls of many public and academic institutions are special collections.

The Dictionary of Archivist Terminology defines a special library as “an institution or an administrative unit of a library responsible for managing materials outside the general library.” These collections can include rare books, archives, manuscripts, letters, maps, oral histories, interviews, and ephemera. Designed to remain out of circulation and inside the walls of their home institution, they are easy to miss but can be a fascinating place to spend time. 


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What Makes a Collection Special? 

Special collections can be found in public, academic, corporate, and government libraries and can grow so large they become a one-topic institution. Many begin as private collections that get donated and are built up. There are many, large and small, in libraries across the country. Here are a few examples: 


Folgers Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC 

Many libraries house the papers of famous authors, such as UC Berkeley, where you can find Mark Twain's, or Toni Morrison’s at Princeton, but this entire library is devoted to The Bard. It was founded by Henry and Emily Folger as “a gift to the American people.” The couple opened it in 1932, building it upon their personal collection of two hundred thousand rare books on Shakespeare.

The library continues to acquire books on the writer and all aspects of Europe’s early modern period. The library is run by a Board of Governors, but the trustees of the endowment funding it are connected to Henry’s alma mater, Amherst College. 


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The Digital Public Library of America 

Many public and academic libraries house special collections, including the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library or the DC Punk Archive at the DC Public Library. The DPLA is a compilation of special collections. They work with partners across the nation to provide researchers of all stripes with their resources, including books, photos, and other archival materials.

Best of all, it’s open 24/7, can be accessed from the comfort of your own home, and you don’t even need a library card—an amazing resource for amateur researchers who lack access to academic libraries. 


The Walt Disney Archives 

Corporations, like people, have a history. They use photo albums (physical and digital), scrapbooks, and journals. They create archives of documents of interest. The Disney Company decided to create one in 1970. They have collected materials covering a century of creative works, from Mickey and Minnie to Elsa and Anna.

It also covers all aspects of the company’s history, both animated and live-action, including scripts, production notes, posters, and other marketing materials and information on the many technical innovations the company created for its films.  The archives have a librarian to answer questions and put on exhibitions every year—a fantastic gift to film buffs and Disney fans alike. 

Special libraries are a subset of libraries, a place where, instead of serving the public, they focus on one topic and build a collection of materials around it. You might have to hunt to find them, but for those interested in the ideas they cover, they are a gold mine worth the hunt. 



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