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Special Collections Reference Guide: Special Collections Philosophy

Special Collections Philosophy

The Harold B. Lee Library maintains and supports a world-class Special Collections in order to enhance the educational mission of Brigham Young University. The Special Collections department, which is part of the BYU Library, houses and maintains the University’s Special Collections.

Statement of Purpose and Defining Special Collections

The BYU Library subscribes to the Association of Research Libraries’ statement on The Unique Role of Special Collections. This document states that the defining characteristic of Special Collections is that they are unique. This uniqueness can be an attribute of a single item (e.g. its rarity, monetary value, or association with important events or individuals) or the attribute of a collection of items, either archival or published materials (e.g. focused assemblages of materials so comprehensive as to constitute unparalleled research opportunities). The presence of a Special Collections is a critical identifier of serious scholarly research universities.

Aligned with the mission of the BYU Library and the University, Special Collections acquires, preserves, and makes available unique, rare, and historical collections of enduring value for use by students, faculty, and other interested patrons—both locally and globally—to promote critical thinking and lifelong learning.

All activities in Special Collections are aligned with the following aspects of the BYU library mission and strategic objectives:

  • Strengthen faith and promote spiritual development. Faculty and staff are intentional in providing students with the opportunity to engage with materials that strengthen their spiritual development. The department’s mission provides students with a unique opportunity to develop the skills that will enable them to build strong testimonies and grow and develop spiritually as they engage with primary resources both at BYU and throughout their lives.
  • Provide extensive and convenient access to challenging, high-quality information. The materials in Special Collections provide students with high quality learning opportunities that challenge their minds and help them develop critical thinking abilities. Special Collections provides access to these materials while also balancing preservation, security, copyright, and ethical and professional standards. This thoughtful approach ensures that materials are accessible for today’s students and generations of students to come. All materials in Special Collections are available physically through the Special Collections reading room and selected materials are available online through digital collections.
  • Support the creation of life-changing educational experiences. Faculty and staff work with students to provide them with life-changing educational experiences through classroom instruction, a research grant program, exhibits, and by employing students as both research and library assistants. Faculty and staff mentor students and provide instruction in the use of primary sources. They also prepare interested students for careers in Special Collections librarianship and adjacent fields.
  • Develop services and spaces that facilitate experimentation, discovery, and creation. Special Collections provides access to its materials in a world class reading room. It uses cutting edge tools that allow for the discovery and access of both physical and digital materials. Faculty and staff utilize multiple exhibit spaces within the department to highlight materials from our holdings and to provide students and teaching faculty with opportunities to learn. Faculty and staff also provide instruction sessions in flexible classroom spaces maintained by the department. Faculty and staff work diligently to create a warm and welcoming environment where students can grow and develop academically and spiritually.
  • Build and support a world-class Library faculty and staff. Faculty and staff in Special Collections are among the best in the western United States. They strive continually to develop their skills. When vacancies occur, Special Collections works diligently to hire the best candidates possible. They continually seek opportunities to hone and develop their skills in order to adapt to changing standards in the profession.


Special Collections accomplishes its mission by engaging in the following activities related to its values (listed alphabetically) of access, collaboration, collection development, ethical behavior, outreach, preservation, and staff development.


Special Collections is committed to providing patrons with timely access to materials needed for research and other purposes. Faculty and staff develop and maintain a number of different tools to enable patrons to discover the materials in the department’s collections. They provide a variety of services to patrons including making copies of materials, remote research, and classroom instruction. All Special Collections materials are arranged and described through the Cataloging and Metadata Department in order to enable patron discovery. Special Collections also maintains a reading room with generous hours which is staffed with highly trained students and full-time professionals who work to meet the needs of patrons. Special Collections and Digital Initiatives engage in an active program of digitization aimed at providing wider access to Special Collections materials and to facilitate lifelong learning.


Staff members work collaboratively with other units in the library and the wider campus to accomplish the mission of Special Collections. Examples of these collaborations include cooperatively managing access tools with Library Information Technology, partnering with subject selectors in outreach to the teaching faculty, collaborating with the Material Acquisitions Department to acquire materials and appropriately track them, collaborating with the Archival Processing Section to prepare manuscript materials for research use, working with the Cataloging and Metadata Department for the creation of appropriate metadata and description for Special Collections materials, and partnering with the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies to promote research in Special Collections on the American West.

Collection Development

Special Collections has been mandated to appraise and acquire materials in specific areas that enable it to facilitate educational research and lifelong learning by campus and other patrons. As part of our fiduciary responsibility, the department collects materials for the long-term and only considers deaccessioning materials under rare circumstance and in accordance with national best practices.

Staff with curatorial responsibilities actively develop the collecting areas for which they have stewardship. The Special Collections Development Committee vets and approves collection development policies that guide this work.


Special Collections strives to abide by the codes of ethics of both the rare book and archival professions. In addition to our professional ethics, we adhere to the standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Special Collections’ collecting areas are uniquely suited to meeting the curricular and research needs of programs such as art, social sciences, performing arts, religion, and humanities. Special Collections works collaboratively with these programs in consultation with appropriate subject selectors to enable the utilization of Special Collections holdings. Special Collections also engages in an active program of outreach to inform campus community members and others of the resources available in the department. These outreach activities include instruction sessions introducing students to Special Collections, group presentations enabling community members and others to engage with Special Collections materials, an annual conference that gives attendees the opportunity to interact with curators and materials, lectures and exhibits highlighting the materials in Special Collections, an internship program which prepares future professionals, and an undergraduate research grant program that provides students with the opportunity to do primary source research under the guidance of a teaching faculty member and a curator. The department also actively looks for additional ways to provide students and others with experiential learning opportunities. Departmental activities are designed to provide undergraduates and other patrons with dynamic educational opportunities that enable them to develop critical thinking skills while facilitating lifelong learning and spiritual development.


Special Collections works collaboratively with a variety of other units to ensure that materials in its holdings are appropriately cared for including the archival processing section, collections management, and conservation. Trained Collections Management staff have primary responsibility for managing the care and housing of materials in the department. The department uses appropriate temperature- and humidity-controlled spaces to house materials. It also takes care to ensure that materials are appropriately housed in archival boxes and other enclosures when necessary. Staff members identify materials needing conservation and work closely with the Archival Processing Section and the Conservation Unit to ensure that these materials receive appropriate care. The Digital Initiatives Department provides assistance in the care and maintenance of digital records and assists the department in digitization activities to reduce the number of times materials need to be handled. The department also manages a robust security program, which includes providing vaults for the library’s most valuable materials, maintaining a secure reading room, installing security cameras in the reading room and throughout the department, interacting with trained security personnel, participating in regular audits, and training all staff regarding security measures and procedures.

Staff development

Special Collections is heavily dependent on highly qualified staff and students. The BYU Library invests significant resources in providing opportunities for staff and students to develop and maintain the skills that they need to successfully accomplish their stewardship responsibilities.