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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 498A: U.S. Labor History

Digital Collections

Some of the digital collections listed here are collections of published sources; some are collections of unpublished sources; and some are a mixture of published and unpublished sources. The collections that exclusively contain unpublished sources tend to be digitized from archives, with minimal editorial apparatus, and few advanced search features. (Many have been digitized from microfilm collections that were created from archival collections, and in these cases the microfilm guide will be an indispensable tool in working with the digitized version.) Bear in mind that digitized archival collections may contain handwritten documents, and handwriting is usually not keyword searchable.

Several of these digital collections are part of ProQuest History Vault. The digital collections in ProQuest History Vault are called "modules," and these modules are bundles of thematically related microfilm sets that have been digitized (on the cheap). Below we have listed the specific subcollections that compose the modules. Working with the specific subcollections is a more methodically approach to using these modules. Also, we have microfilm guides for many of these subcollections, and the guides give a very orderly presentation of each collection's contents. Keyword searching isn't always the best way to use digital collections.

Other Formats

This section lists primarily print and microform collections. Microform collections can be quite broad in scope (for example, the papers of an entire organization like the ACLU), so you often need to review the guides (usually available in print at the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library) before you can know how promising a source they will be.

Also included is in this section are printed collections, which are usually smaller in scope and tend to be edited collections. Whereas microform collections will contain photographic reproductions of original documents, printed collections are usually edited and typeset (meaning you don't have to try to read somebody's handwriting).

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

While you will generally use catalogs to discover sources in library collections, you will use finding aids. Finding aids can describe archival collections at different levels of granularity (which depends largely on the ability of archives personnel to process these large collections). A blunt finding aid might simply describe the major record series that compose a collection. A detailed finding aid can describe an archival collection down to the box, folder, or even item level.

The finding aids for archival collections held by the University of Illinois Library are searchable:

Use these databases to identify archival collections held here.

Some examples of special collections (at the University of Illinois Library) that might be relevant to research on U.S. labor history are listed below:


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.