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What are Special Collections?

Pages from 'The Siege of Troye'

My Learning Essentials contains a short, interactive introduction to Special Collections.

There is no simple, catch-all definition of Special Collections. However, at the University of Manchester Library our Special Collections consist of several categories of material:

Printed material: books and journals regarded as special because of their age, rarity, fragility, provenance, association and/or financial value. Spanning in date from the 15th century to the present, they range from luxury books printed on vellum and beautifully illustrated, to ephemera, cheap broadsides and other forms of street-literature.

Manuscripts: generally individual, hand-written items, including codices (volumes), scrolls and single-sheet material. Because they are hand-written all manuscripts are unique. They include religious, ritualistic, literary, historical, administrative and legal texts, and life-writings. Many are beautifully illuminated.

Archives: documents which were created or received, accumulated and used by an individual or institution in the course of their daily activities, and preserved for their continuing value. Archives provide us with primary evidence of the transactions, processes and events they record. They often have a complex structure, and can contain a huge variety of material.

Visual collections: including works of art, book illustration, analogue photographs, and objects that link visual and literary cultures from the ancient world to the present.

Maps: the map collection offers an extensive range of historical maps ranging from a 15th-century map of the world to an enviable collection of old maps and plans of Manchester. 

Secondary literature that supports the Special Collections, in areas such as book history and manuscript studies.

Special Collections material isn’t necessarily old. While our ancient Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets date back as far as 2500 BC, we also collect examples of modern fine printing, and digital archives.

The University of Manchester Library holds one of the largest assemblies of Special Collections material in Britain, occupying approximately 20,000 metres of shelving.

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