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Research support: Archives and special collections

Libraries v Archives

You may wonder what - if anything - is the difference between a library and an archive. 

Libraries are generally considered to be collections of books and/or journals that are either available in hard copy, or in electronic form as facilitated by that library. 

Archives are different for a number of reasons. Archives can hold unpublished as well as published materials, and are not necessarily restricted to books or journals. Material held in archives is often rare and unique: it might well be the case that an item in an archive is the only version available in the entire world. Is is often the case that archived are accessed by special arrangement.

Finding information in an archive can be hugely gratifying, and can make for some excellent outcomes for your research.

The British Library

Located close to Euston Station in London, the British Library is of international as well as national importance. Adding approximately 3 million items to their collections annually, the British Library received a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland. Containing around 150 million items, the British Library includes historically significant items, such as the earliest dated printed book and the Magna Carta. The British Library is open to the public, but accessing material requires prior arrangement.

Visit the British Library here:

What are archival materials, and what can I find in an archive?

JISC-based service Archives Hub defines an archive in the context of research as the following:

"Materials that have been created by individuals, groups or organisations during the course of their life or work and deemed to be worth keeping permanently for the purposes of research.

Importantly, they are not usually created for future research, but for immediate practical, personal or administrative purposes, as part of the activities of an individual, family or organisation.

The word 'archives' is used for so many different things, and there is no universally agreed definition. 'Archive' is sometimes used simply for materials that are stored indefinitely, such as a back-up of emails. You may also hear the term 'manuscripts' used to refer to the papers of individuals or families, as opposed to 'archives', which may be used specifically for the papers of businesses or organisations."

Archives can contain a wide range of material beyond books and/or journals.

Top tips for archival research

Archival research is unique. You might find yourself having to visit a variety of locations, and to consult some material you may need to use special equipment such as book stands or cotton gloves. 

Here are some top tips for successful archival research:

  • Contact the archive before you visit. Some operate on an appointments-only basis.
  • Before visiting the archive, check to see if you are able to take notes, and if so, what are you permitted to make notes with. Some archives don't allow the use of pens; some insist that only pencils provided by the archive are used.
  • Plan your time carefully. If you are wanting to consult a large amount of material, consider having to make more than one visit to the archive.
  • Be focussed in your research, but accept (and enjoy!) the fact that you may find information you weren't expecting.
  • Archives staff are experts in their collections, and are happy to help you. They may even be able to point you in the direction of additional material that may be of relevance.
  • You may be permitted to take photographs, but ask first. 
  • It may also be possible for staff to produce copies of some of the material; again, ask first,

Special collections

Special collections are similar to archives in that they may hold rare and/or unique items, but are often housed apart from the main collection.

The University of Bolton has one special collection which is located near to door to the stairs to T2. This is a collection of books donated by the Quilters' Guild, and may be borrowed.

Useful databases

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