Skip to Main Content

Primary Sources

Learn where to find primary sources and how to contextualize them.


This page is designed to help you:

  • understand what special collections are, including what sorts of items are housed in special collections
  • learn how to gain access to materials in a special collection

What are Special Collections?

Special collections exist within libraries and are home to items that are unusually rare or valuable. Special collections include primary sources and secondary sources ­–often books– that are considered to be rare or special in some way. These can include: 

  • artist’s books 
  • antiquarian or old books 
  • books for which not many copies were printed 
  • unique, handwritten documents
  • archives 

​A library’s special collections may also have collections of items focused on a single topic. You can find more information about Brown’s special collections here.  

Accessing Special Collections

Items in special collections generally do not circulate, meaning you cannot bring these items home. Rather, you typically need to make an appointment with the library in order to use objects from a special collection. You can learn more about how to set up an appointment to use Brown’s special collections here.

Conducting Special Collections Research

When visiting special collections, you will most likely look at the objects you are using in a special part of the library called a reading room. Reading rooms are the places where researchers can engage with the rare or valuable items from a special collection. 

Before entering a reading room, you will often be asked to wash your hands to help keep special collections materials clean. Typically researchers are not allowed to bring coats or bags into a reading room. Pens are also not allowed in reading rooms, but pencils and laptops are generally fine. You can read more about what to expect when visiting the reading room here.

A reading room attendant will be in the room to assist you with the objects you are researching. If you have any questions about planning your visit to use special collections at the John Hay Library, get in touch with us

In Practice

In order to use Brown's special collections, researchers must create an account with Aeon, Brown's special collections request system. Both Brown affiliates and visiting researchers can register through this website. 

Once you have created your account, take a look through the catalog to get started on your research! 

Learning Outcomes

This guide was designed to help you:

  • understand what special collections are, including what sorts of items are found in special collections
  • learn how to gain access to the materials in a special collection
Did this page help you meet these objectives?
Yes: 6 votes (33.33%)
No: 12 votes (66.67%)
Total Votes: 18