Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Yale Library COVID-19 updates.

Guide to Using Special Collections at Yale University [Revised Draft]: Introduction


The purpose of this guide is to introduce you to the wealth of special collections available for research and teaching at Yale University. There are special collections repositories within many of the libraries and museums at Yale, and all are available for use by Yale students, faculty, and staff, and independent researchers from the New Haven community and around the world.

This guide will provide information on:

What are Special Collections and Archives?

Special collections   include rare books , manuscripts , papers, clothing and other items that are of unique value and importance to the study of material culture, history, literature and other subjects. Often items in the special collections are fragile, rare, and valuable.

Archives are collections of historical materials, records, and documents with research value providing information about a place, institution, person, society, or groups of people. Archival materials can come in any form of media from paper documents to works of art, and include mostly unpublished materials. 

The archives at Yale contain both, and all materials are non-circulating, therefore they may only be viewed in the reading rooms under security unless they are digitized.

What are Primary Sources?

According to Primary Sources at Yale, primary sources provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic or question under investigation.

They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.

The majority of materials in special collections and archives are primary sources!

Staff are here to help!

Don't be afraid to reach out to special collection staff members when you need assistance.  Below is a list of individuals you may come across during your use of special collections

Archivists and Librarians

Archivists and librarians work with the collections and materials every day. Don't be afraid to reach out to any librarian in the staff directory for research help. You can also find which archivist created the finding aid of a collection! If you'd like to know more about a specific collection, the archivist who worked on it and created its finding aid is likely the best person to ask for help, as they know the collection hands-on better than anyone.

Personal Librarians

Every Yale undergraduate is assigned to a personal librarian. They’ll be able to offer you personalized help and point you in the right direction. They can help with search strategies and even recommend different people who can help.

Subject Specialists

General subject specialists have familiarity with special collections, and if needed, can refer you to subject specialists that directly with special collections.


Curators know their curatorial area like the back of their hand, and they too are here to help if you want to do research within a specific area. You can find a curator in the staff directory of a repository whose curatorial area matches your research field. Sometimes they can even point to a specific collection that you may find useful.

Access Services Staff

Access services help retrieve items from their storage places and help you get settled in the reading room. They are experts at accessing collections and can help you with handling materials in the reading rooms as well as any questions about reproductions you may have. They work with the collections every day and may be able to answer research questions or they will  point you to the right person who can.


Yale Library Security Department does more than just keeping you and the materials safe. They know the building inside out, and can help you navigate the library or direct you to the reading room if you’re having a hard time finding it. They can help you get settled in the reading room and answer questions about the libraries, and if they can’t answer, they can help you find a librarian who can!