One of my favorite phrases in archival terminology is the phrase “special collections.” I love this phrase so much because it describes itself perfectly. If you have never heard the phrase “special collections” before, the first thing to note is that it’s a multifaceted term. For instance, take a look at Laura Schmidt’s explanation of the phrase in her publication Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research:
Special collections are institutions containing materials from individuals, families, and organizations deemed to have significant historical value. Topics collected in special collections vary widely, and include medicine, law, literature, fine art, and technology. Often a special collections repository will be a department within a library, holding the library’s rarest or most valuable original manuscripts, books, and/or collections of local history for neighboring communities.
This definition is interesting to me because it’s pretty much synonymous with the general definition for archives. In fact, many people use the terms “archives” and “special collections” interchangeably. However, others prefer to view special collections in a slightly different category than archives. In some archival repositories, particularly archives often refer to the records created during the course of organizational business while special collections refer to manuscripts, rare books, and other rare, unpublished material that may be more personal, or perhaps covers a wide range of topics.
There’s really no right or wrong to view of the phrase “special collections.” It all depends on your repository and what it collects. As Schmidt mentioned in her definition, some institutions are solely “special collections institutions” that collect a wide variety of archival materials from individual people, families, communities, and organizations. Other institutions, such as corporate archives and government archives, probably have very few special collections materials because they focus on collecting the business archives of a specific entity. Other institutions, such as universities, often have a mix of archives and special collections materials. For example, at the Kennesaw State University Archives (where I work), we have separated our repository holdings into three main records groups: University Archives, Special Collections, and Digital Collections (http://archives.kennesaw.edu/archive_use/collections.php). For us, the university archives and the special collections work together to fulfill our mission, which is to document an inclusive history of our university and of the north and northwest Georgia community. Our university records (presidential records, departmental records, student group records, etc.) document university history and our special collections (local history records, genealogical records, family papers, etc.) document the north and northwest Georgia community in which we live. If I am being completely honest, I must say that I have always preferred working with our special collections because I get to learn about so many different people’s stories. There’s just something so intimate about reading a handwritten letter between a Vietnam soldier and the girl he adores, analyzing marginalia in a medieval manuscript, or preserving a carte de visite that once sat in a nineteenth-century parlor!
No matter how you view or describe special collections, one thing to remember is that they truly are special. I’ve traveled through the World War II Homefront, the Civil Rights Movement, the era of Native American Removal, and many other periods of American history simply by working with special collections.
You are special. Humans our special. Our memories are special. Our collections are special.
*This is the front side of a letter in the Robert deTreville Lawrence III Papers at the Kennesaw State University Archives. The Lawrence Collection is one of our special collections.
 Laura Schmidt, Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research (Society of American Archivists, 2011).