Using items from the special collections

How to request and use original and rare printed material, including items that are unique, irreplaceable or fragile.

What are special collections?

The Library holds large amounts of original and rare printed material, which it groups under the term 'special collections'.

This material includes:

  • rare books
  • manuscripts
  • pictures
  • oral histories
  • maps
  • objects.

Some of these items are unique, irreplaceable and fragile. For this reason, the Library restricts the way visitors can use them. If unsure, please check with Library staff in advance of your visit.

You must be over 18 to use special collections material.

Note: The term 'use' includes reading books and periodicals, examining manuscripts, pictures and maps, listening to audio, watching video, copying material and viewing items on microfiche readers and computers.

If you can't visit the Library

This page deals with using material in the Library. In some cases, you can use special collections material online or through other institutions.

You can also order copies from many items in the library's collection:

  • Contact us at Ask a Librarian if you need any assistance with your order.
  • Copies are provided for research and study purposes only. You will need permission from the publisher or copyright owner to reproduce or publish images that are under copyright.
How to get a Special Collections card

You'll need to:

To get a Special Collections card
  1. Apply for a Library card if you don't have one.
  2. Choose 'Collect in the library' to receive your card at your next visit to the library. 
    • When you visit, you will also need to show 2 forms of identification that together have your current address, photo and signature in order to get a Special Collections card. 
How to request special collections material
You must read and adhere to the Special Collections Conditions of Use before requesting items.

If you have any questions about accessing special collections material, please speak to a staff member or contact us using the Ask a Librarian service.

  1. Log in to the Library catalogue
  2. Search for the item in the Library catalogue
  3. View the How to access this item section.
    • If you see Enquire with staff in the reading room or online, the item is either original material or rare printed material. 
    • This means it’s part of special collections.
As most special collections material can be retrieved for use within 30 minutes, speaking to a staff member in the Special Collections area is the easiest way to make a request.

If you're only planning a brief visit, please contact us at least a week before your visit using the Ask a Librarian service. We can discuss retrieving the material in preparation for your visit.

If you're in the Library

  1. Go to the Special Collections area
    • Items can be requested up to one hour before closing. See our opening hours for more information.
    • This area is closed on Sundays.
  2. Complete a request slip and give it to a staff member.
    • They will tell you how soon the item will be ready.
  3. Collect the item from the Special Collections area. 
    • You can only use the item in this area and you’ll need to follow the conditions of use.

If you're not in the Library

  1. Contact us using the Ask a Librarian service at least a week before your visit to the Library.
    • Telephone
      • Available 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday
    • Online form
      • If you use the online form, we will get back to you within seven working days.
    • Chat
      • Available 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday
When will the material be ready?
  • Most special collections material can be retrieved for use within 30 minutes.
  • The access conditions and availability of the material will determine when you can use it.
  • Staff may give you a microfilm or digital copy of the material. This is to help preserve the original.
How to handle special collections material

Staff in the Special Collections area will usually give you one item at a time. You may need to wait while they weigh it and record its weight.

When handling the material, you must:

  • have clean, dry hands
  • wear gloves if asked
  • rest items on the table
  • use pencils only
  • keep items in the same order or folder.

You must not:

  • mark documents
  • take notes on top of the material
  • use Post-It notes to mark pages.

Staff can provide resources to help with handling the material, including:

  • weights
  • book rests
  • supports
  • cushions
  • gloves
  • alcohol hand wipes
  • acid-free paper markers.

Staff may ask you to move the material, use a specific table or change seats. 

They can also answer questions if you need help with handling material.

Other conditions
  • Other Library visitors may not use the material you’ve requested without speaking to staff.
  • You may not take material out of the Special Collections area.
  • The following items are not allowed in the Special Collections area:
    • bags including handbags, camera bags and laptop bags
      • Free lockers are available, but they are not large enough to accommodate most suitcases and large luggage.
    • food and drink including bottled water
    • scanners including hand-held scanners
    • pens, ink and highlighters.
Copying, photographing and scanning material

Speak to staff before copying or photographing special collections material. They'll need to check that the material is not in copyright, restricted or too fragile.

Where to return material

Return the items you've been using to staff at the desk in the Special Collections area

Staff may need to weigh the returned material.

Items must be returned 10 minutes before closing.

Reserving items to continue using them

You can continue to use special collections items for up to seven days after you've requested them.

Ask staff in the Special Collections area to reserve them for you.

Using general material in the Special Collections area

If you're working in the Special Collections area, you can collect and use general material there as well. This includes printed materials usually issued in the Marie Bashir Reading Room.

Ask staff in the Special Collections area how to do this.

If you can't visit the Library

Accessing material online

You can use digital versions of many special collections items online, from anywhere.

To do this, search for the item in the Library catalogue or digital collections.

Accessing material through other institutions

Some manuscripts and pictorial material are available in other formats from:

Contact the relevant institution to find out how to access these types of material.