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YYGS: Online Special Collections & Other Resources: Special Collections

A guide to accessing online special collections and other resources, from Yale and beyond.

What are special collections?

Women carrying offerings for the religious festival Phu Giay Nam Dinh, in Vietnam.[Goldfish bowl from Strawberry Hill] [art original] / Carol Oliver '03.Tobit Despairs of his BlindnessTorah (fragment).

 Fetishes from Congo and Loango.






There is no one definition of special collections, but all of Yale's special collections share a few common characteristics:

  • Rarity: Books, archives, manuscripts (handwritten documents), or other materials that are unique, often unpublished, and for which very few or no other copies exist. Because of their rarity, special collections materials are often one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable.
  • Format: Materials such as photographs, maps, handwritten documents, or physical artifacts that require special handling and storage environments to ensure longterm preservation and access for researchers.
  • Comprehensiveness: Collections of materials that aren't necessarily individually unique or valuable, but which together constitute an important body of information on a particular topic.

At Yale, special collections may consist of (but are not necessarily limited to) any or all of the following types of materials: manuscripts, archival collections, rare books, audiovisual materials, artifacts and artwork, electronic files (like emails, computer hard drives, flash drives with computer files, etc.). Special collections are also held by several of our libraries and museums. These include: Yale University Library, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art, the Yale Peabody Museum, and others.

Some of Yale's collections have been digitized and are available online, though many other collections or parts of collections are only available for use within the repository.

Information about Yale's special collections is searchable in a variety of databases at the libraries and museums. The sections below will walk you through how to find online material by collection and in online catalogs.

How do I find and access special collections?

Langston Hughes + the Mahoney'sThe Beinecke Digital Library includes more than a million images of collection material, including books, manuscript material, photographs, and artwork. While the Beinecke Digital Library is quite large, it represents only a fraction of total collections material on-site.

Note: Keep in mind that much of the material in Digital Collections still requires a Net ID to view. Plan to retrieve this material in advance if you wish to use it.

Beinecke also maintains online Beinecke Digital Exhibitions. These online exhibitions include early explorations of manuscripts, portraits, poetry, and literature in Beinecke's collections.

[Pictured left: Hughes, Langston. Langston Hughes + the Mahoney's. Langston Hughes papers. Beinecke Library. Yale University.]

Warhol, Andy, 1928-1987. Cats IllustrationYale University Library Digital Collections includes digitized images, archival documents, and other special collections materials. Try a keyword search in this collection and see what you find! Here is a link to a search for cats in YUL's Digital Collections: cats at Yale.

Note: Keep in mind that much of the material in Digital Collections still requires a Net ID to view. Plan to retrieve this material in advance if you wish to use it.

Yale University Library also has online exhibitions, which cover topics like music during World War I, women at Yale, and the Harlem Renaissance.

[Pictured left: Warhol, Andy, 1928-1987. Cats: Illustration. Yale Visual Resources Collection.]

Mask Representing a Beautiful Mother (D’mba)The Yale University Art Gallery, founded in 1832, is the home of more than 250,000 objects representing Eastern and Western cultures and ranging in date from ancient times to the present day.

[Pictured left: Mask Representing a Beautiful Mother (D’mba). Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection. Yale University Art Gallery.]

Aceratherium incisivum Kaup, 1832The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, founded in 1866, tells the story of our Earth and its life, history, and cultures.

[Pictured left: VP.047587: Aceratherium incisivum Digital Image: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; photo by Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, Yale Peabody Museum, 2016.]

Measure of the Day The Yale Center for British Art houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom and reflects the development of British art and culture from the Elizabethan period onward.

[Pictured left: Sheila Girling, 1924–2015. Measure of the Day. 2015.]

Find special collections in Yale Library online catalogs

Quicksearch Books+ includes descriptions of books, manuscripts, archival collections, pamphlets, and many other materials.

Advanced search is the best way to construct targeted, sophisticated searches for specific collection materials. The following can be especially effective in focusing advanced searches for special collections:

  • Limit Location to the relevant special collections location (e.g., Beinecke)
  • Limit Format to Archives or Manuscripts, Manuscript Maps, etc.

Within catalog records, you may see links to digitized material. Below is an example of digital material in Quicksearch Books+, with the corresponding digitized object.

   undefined   Bible. Latin. Vulgate. 1454.

Archives at Yale (AAY) is the interface for searching Yale's finding aids, or guides to archival and manuscript collections. 

  • The help page for Archives at Yale contains instructions for searching and requesting materials.

Finding aids are tools that describe in varying levels of detail the contents of archival and manuscript collections. By linking collection contents to information about the containers that house those contents, finding aids are a key component of access for researchers who wish to request and use those collections.

Because it is important to understand the context of the accumulations of materials that an archival or manuscript collection typically comprises, finding aids provide information about collection creators--individuals, families, and organizations--and the functions and activities that caused the materials in the collection to be created, accumulated, maintained, and used over time.