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Special Collections and University Archives: A Basic Introduction: A. Materials

This guide will introduce the department of Newman Library that is devoted to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary source materials.


General Information

Monday-Friday 9am-5pm & By Appointment

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Telephone: 540-231-6308
Information for Visitors

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Aaron Purcell, Director, Special Collections and University Archives
Kira Dietz, Assistant Director, Special Collections and University Archives [appointment calendar]
Ren Harman, Oral History Projects Archivist/Project Manager, VT Stories
John Jackson, Archives Assistant
Alan Munshower, Digital Collections Archivist
LM Rozema, Processing and Special Projects Archivist
Jade Snelling, Collections Archivist
Amelia Verkerk, University Archivist
Anthony Wright de Hernandez, Community Collections Archivist
Kat Zinn, Project Archivist


There are many ways to speak about the materials in Special Collections and University Archives. One way is to talk about the components of Special Collections and University Archives, which, roughly and broadly, refer to the kinds of materials that are held here. They are: 

  • Manuscript collections
  • Rare book collection
  • University Archives
  • Historical Photograph collection
  • Historical Map collection
  • Vertical Files

Manuscript collections: By this we mean collections of unpublished primary sources.

Primary sources offer first-hand accounts of events and experiences whether they are public or private. They offer direct evidence or first-hand testimony of a topic under investigation or of a specific time and place. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.

Primary sources are often created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. 

Primary sources are distinguished by their content, regardless of format. A document, for example, in its original format, on microfilm, published, or in a digital format is a primary source if the content is properly characterized as such. They need not be written, but may be recorded as audio, video, or on film, for example.

What kinds of primary sources might you find in manuscript collections? These may include diaries, journals, letters, correspondence, family papers, scrapbooks, business records, legal documents, architectural drawings, oral histories, photographs, and maps.

Primary sources are different from secondary sources in that secondary sources, often based on primary sources, demonstrate a greater degree to which the producer of the secondary source is removed from the event or experience at issue. For example, the writer of a biography (secondary source) does not experience the life that is the subject of the work as the subject of the biography did, as that life is reflected in the letters and journals (primary sources) of the subject. The biographer is necessarily removed from the experience of the subject of the work. If a writer examines the history of a company but did not experience first-hand the conditions of the company reflected in the records (primary sources) of the company, the history produced will be a secondary source. 

Again, manuscript materials are unpublished primary sources. There are also published primary sources. These include newspapers, for example, and editions of diaries and letters in a published form, perhaps as a book.

More about manuscript materials and collections:

Manuscript materials are grouped into collections that are named primarily according to the persons or organizations responsible for creating or assembling the materials. Examples include the John Janney Papers, 1811–1880, and the Radford Brock Company Cash Ledger, 1889–1921. In addition to the name, collections are identified by a unique identifier. In this repository, this identifier follows the format of Ms2001-019, where Ms stands for Manuscript, the next set of digits is the year the collection was processed, and the last three digits represent the number of the collection for that particular year. When requesting to see a specific collection, it is useful, but not necessary, to know both the identifier and the name of the collection.

Manuscript collections may be large or small. They may consist of a single document or 300 boxes (or more) of material. 

Manuscript collections are described in documents called finding aids that are written by archivists and available online. By searching finding aids, one can determine which collections may be of use for a given project or in pursuit of a given interest.

As of 2015, Special Collections at Virginia Tech holds nearly 2000 manuscript collections

Rare Book collection

There are approximately 75,000 volumes in the book collection at Special Collections, with more in offsite storage. The collection spans every century from the 15th onwards, with the earliest complete volumes having been printed in Venice in the early 1480s, just thirty years after the introduction of metal movable-type in Europe. (By the way, books printed during the first fifty years following that "event" are known as incunabula, meaning "from the cradle.")

The collection includes numerous first editions of literary and historical value, along with small press publications, signed and limited editions. Among literary titles, for example, is a first edition of Joyce's Ulysses, a complete set of the serial edition of Dickens' Bleak House, and a first American edition of Huckleberry Finn, to mention only a few. Our holding of books related to the American Civil War number over 7,000.

Although the book collection does hold unique, rare, and valuable books, it also includes titles that may not be at all rare because they coincide with our collecting areas. (See Section B. Collecting Areas) A relatively new book on the Civil War may be in the collection for that reason.  New books by University faculty will also be found in the book collection. 

University Archives

More than a collecting area of Special Collections and University Archives, University Archives is the component of the department that collects and preserves the materials that document the rich history of the university and the accomplishments of the individuals and groups who have been associated with it over the decades. Photographs, university publications, personal papers of faculty and alumni, Presidential papers, records of various administrative offices and academic departments on campus are among the materials found in University Archives. These collections of materials are often divided into assigned Record Groups designated by the prefix, RG. For example, materials relating to the Board of Visitors are identified as RG1/x, whereas the papers of the various presidents of the university are designated RG2/x. A guide to the major record group headings may be seen here. In other cases, particularly involving publications of the university, these materials have been cataloged separately and may be found in the Special Collections and University Archives book collection.

Historical Photograph collection

With over 65,000 images of an historical and, primarily, regional nature, this collection is arranged into folders by topic. The vast majority of these photographs are available digitally via ImageBase, a database found linked to the Special Collections and University Archives homepage. Here one can find, for example, photographs that document the changes that have taken place over the years in downtown Blacksburg or on the University campus, among many hundreds of other topics.

Historical Map collection

This collection consists of approximately 1,000 maps that focus primarily, but not exclusively, on the geographical areas with which we are mostly concerned: the Eastern United States, Southern Appalachia, Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Montgomery County, Blacksburg, and the University campus. The collections also includes a great many maps related to the American Civil War. 

Vertical Files

Vertical files at Special Collections and University Archives include newspaper clippings, photocopies, ephemera, unpublished and/or informal publications, and other papers relating to a specific subject area or topic. Separate sets of these files have been assembled under the larger headings of: Blacksburg, Montgomery County, and Southwest Virginia. There is also a set of biographical files and a mounted clipping file that predates the vertical files.