Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 200B: The American Family

Introduces history majors to basic research library concepts. Provides both a broad overview of the source types collected by research libraries, as well as lists of specific sources relevant to your assignment for this class.

Digital Collections

Most digital collections are organized thematically. Increasingly though, digital collections that appear to be organized thematically are actually digitized archival collections, and you'll find that it's helpful to know this before you begin exploring the collection, because with archival collections it's especially important to learn how the documents are organized before you begin using them.

Few digital collections have yet been created specifically around the theme of families. To find sources about families in digital collections, you'll need to do some creative thinking: what sorts of collections might contain documents related to your topic? What kinds of people or organizations might have created documents about your topic? Collections about social services and social groups will often will often include sources that document family life throughout history.

Microform and Print Collections

Microform collections tend to be one of two kinds: either thematic, or archival. Thematic microform collections are organized around a central theme, like women's history, American Indian history, history of madness, history of the American west, and so forth. Thematic collections will often include a mixture of published and unpublished sources, with greater emphasis on published sources. Archival microform collections are organized around provenance, which is to say the person or organization from which the documents came. In the case of archival microform collections, the person or organization from which the documents came is also very often the person or organization that produced the documents.

Print collections, in contrast, will be carefully selected compilations of reprinted primary sources.

Statistics (Including Pubic Opinion Polls)

Special Collections

Special collections bring together documents that share some common characteristic, such as rarity, format, subject, or provenance. Rare book libraries and archives are two common types of special collections.

Rare book libraries usually collect published sources, but may also collect manuscripts and other unpublished sources, especially literary manuscripts and manuscripts that relate to the library's rare book collections. Rare book libraries are usually organized like other libraries described in this guide, and are often attached to a research or academic library.

Archives, on the other hand, are organized quite differently than libraries. This difference is due to several factors, including the following:

  • The massive quantity of documents acquired by archives (an archive will usually measure the size of its collection by linear feet rather than by number of volumes)
  • The special nature of archival collections (which sometimes include access restrictions due to privacy rights of people who are the subjects of the documents)
  • The evidentiary value of the collection's arrangement as that arrangement was developed by the collection's original creators and users. 

Unlike library collections, which are organized by subject, archival collections are organized by provenance, and to whatever extent possible the archive will attempt "to maintain the integrity of records in relation to their documentary, provenancial, functional, and jurisdictional contexts",1 by ensuring that the documents remain organized the way they were organized at the time of their creation, or the time of their accession into the archive.

Other types of documents found in special collections include "maps, games, original works of art, realia (nonbook objects, such as furniture, weaponry, or locks of hair), textiles, audiovisual materials, and digital materials".2

Some examples of special collections at the University of Illinois Library:

Archives within driving distance:

Find more archival collections:


1. Joanne Evans, Sue McKemmish, and Barbara Reed, "Archival Arrangement and Description," in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 4th ed., ed.  John D. McDonald and Michael Levine-Clark (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2017), 118.

2. Lynne M. Thomas, "Special Collections," in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 4th ed., ed.  John D. McDonald and Michael Levine-Clark (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2017), 4335.