There is not one definition of special collections. Often what makes collections “special” is that they do not fit easily into existing categories. The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science explains it this way:

Some libraries segregate from the general collection rare books, manuscripts, papers, and other items that are (1) of a certain form, (2) on a certain subject, (3) of a certain time period or geographic area, (4) in fragile or poor condition, or (5) especially valuable. Such materials are not allowed to circulate and access to them may be restricted.

The Association of Research Libraries’ Task Force on Special Collections defines special collections as “one-of-a-kind or rarely held books” as well as “items precious through their rarity, monetary value, or their association with important figures or institutions” that may also consist of “focused assemblages of published materials.” Later, they expanded the definition, as follows: “any kind of vehicle for information and communication that lacks readily available and standardized classification schemes, and any that is vulnerable to destruction or disappearance without special treatment. 

Please visit our Special Collections page to learn about special collections in The New School Libraries and Archives, and to find out about how to access them.