Items in Special Collections exist in a wide range of formats and media including: books, pamphlets, postcards, stereopticon views, letters, diaries, maps, atlases, magazines, newsletters, scrapbooks, photographic prints, glass plate negatives, nitrate base negatives, motion picture film, slides, and magnetic recordings. The nature of the materials and the diversity of formats and media have several important implications for the researcher.
Perhaps the most important of these is that logistical considerations as well as conservation concerns may prevent all items relevant to a particular topic from being grouped together. Anyone using the collection should, therefore, be prepared to repeat his/her investigations in different groupings of material and to recognize certain items may be more difficult to access or copy. Nitrate base negatives, for example, are refrigerated and require time to brought up to room temperature before they can be viewed; producing prints from these negatives is difficult and entails higher cost and longer lead time than printing from conventional negatives.
Another factor which may make resources in Special Collections seem less user-friendly than those in the rest of the Library is that much of the material is primary rather than secondary. Someone doing research on an area business, for example, might be presented with multiple boxes of original correspondence and records instead of a book or article on the history of the firm. In such a case, considerable effort will be required on the part of the visitor to interpret the material and to decide which, if any, items should be copied.
Similarly, even the basic question of whether a given topic is covered in a particular resource (and to what degree) may not be answerable without extensive investigation. A inquiry about nineteenth century brass foundries may first require reading decades of city directories to determine business names and locations, then review of vertical files and inventories of image collections by street addresses, and finally examination of prints and negatives to determine whether any of the structures depicted could be foundries. Images present a particular challenge in that each may contain an almost infinite number of subjects depending upon what the researcher is looking for. While no inventories may specifically list horse drawn vehicles, for example, an extensive review of negatives and prints listed by street or business may reveal a significant number of such vehicles even if they are not the central focus of the image.
Although the staff will provide assistance whenever possible, the diversity of the collections will cause the success of any given inquiry to depend largely on the time and energy the individual researcher is able to commit.