Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between libraries, archives, and special collections?

Library material generally consists of books and other printed materials.  These collections generally are considered  ‘secondary sources’, that is, their content is interpreted by its authors, the information derives from several sources, and is usually written well after an event occurred. Library items can be checked out and taken home.

Archives contain records, which consist of primary sources. Archival records are created during an event, usually as part of the regular activity of an institution, an organization, or a person.  Other than the items that may be available online, the bulk of items must be used in the archival space or through virtual sessions as these materials generally are one-of-a-kind and cannot be removed or taken out of the research area.

Special Collections consist of manuscript collections, whose content is considered as ‘primary source’, created by a person or an organization, and rare books, which are scarce and hard to locate for research use. Other than some items which may be available online, the bulk of these items have to be used in the archival space or in virtual sessions as they  cannot be removed or taken out of the research area.

Both Archives and Special Collections preserve, document, organize, and hold materials in perpetuity for research use.

What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?

Primary sources provide first-hand accounts or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. This means that the object in question is the source of the original information and does not contain the opinions and/or interpretations of any other party. It is then up to the researcher to use critical document analysis skills to determine a primary source’s intent.

Contrary to popular opinion, primary sources are not only “old” or historic materials. They can be physical or digital and they exist in all types of formats (books, documents, objects, audiovisual material, images, etc.). Additionally, they support research in all subject areas and disciplines and even be used to inspire creativity for your original work.

Secondary sources provide second-hand accounts of evidence and typically gather information from various primary and secondary resources to do so.

Usually researchers working with primary resources from archives and/or special collections use the information within them to help generate their own work, thus a secondary source.

What do we do? What do we collect?

Archives & Special Collections houses an organization's or individual people's collections (papers, photographs, compositions, writings) created during their professional lives, the records of Columbia College Chicago, collections produced by composers, researchers, and music focused on the African diaspora, research-rare books and publications, and works produced by faculty and staff at the college. The collecting policy details the types of materials collected. 

For more information about collections ready for research please view:

Among other services Archives staff offers students includes:

  • Narrowing down a research topic
  • Discussing copyright and intellectual property issues in primary sources
  • Identifying effective search terms to discover more information
  • Suggesting resources for locating credible information
  • Finding manuscripts, books, and other materials in support of the topic

Staff also do the following:

Contact us to talk about your research or fill out this form to request a research consultation or to virtually interact with primary materials.  

Most collections are not online or not yet organized for research use, so please contact us,  as we can locate the primary materials necessary for your research.

What is the difference between preservation, conservation, and restoration?

Preservation measures are taken in collection material to reduce risks of chemical and physical  deterioration and damage to papers, items, and objects. These preventative measures minimize the loss of information and help extend the life of cultural property.  CASPC performs preservation measures for its collection material which includes removing metal from documents, using acid-free materials to house items, and other methods of control to lengthen the life of the material under its care.

Conservation addresses existing damage to items and does not always eliminate evidence of damage to an item.  Repairing and rebuilding collection items is done by trained professionals and materials which are candidates for this type of care are sent out for repair.  Examples of such repairs include removing glue/adhesives from materials, mending tears, washing paper, and deacidification.  

The process of rehabilitating an item to return it as nearly as possible to its original condition is called restoration. This method may include fabrication of missing parts with modern materials, but using processes and techniques that are similar to those originally used to create the item. 

What is digital preservation? 

Digital preservation starts the moment digital files arrive in an archival collection. These types of files require management and maintenance so they will  be accessible to researchers in the future. Digital preservation is about longevity of the files and the steps one can take to prevent deterioration or loss over time. It includes migrating materials from unstable formats and saving digital files or objects in open source formats as well as saving more than one copy of digital files in separate geographic locations to ensure these files will be available for future research use. 

What are primary sources?

Primary Resources are objects which provide first-hand accounts or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation

  • Includes all mediums (physical and digital)
  • Includes all formats (documents, books, objects, institutional records, audiovisual materials, photographs, etc.)
  • Can be used to support research in all subject areas and disciplines
  • Can be used to inspire creativity for your original work 

For more information on primary sources and how to identify and use them, see our Lib Guide on Primary Sources

What is a finding aid?

A finding aid is a document which describes a set of archival records and assists in facilitating research access to a collection. Elements generally included in a finding aid are the title page; collection summary that is an abstract about the collection; statements regarding access and use of collection material; related materials held in the same archives or at other repositories;  subjects that provide further access to the collection; brief biographical or historical notes about the collection; scope and content information outlining materials in the collection; the arrangement of the materials in the collection; and a contents list or inventory to the collection.

How do I use a finding aid?

Understanding Finding Aids 


How to I cite archives collections?
Click here to view how to properly cite archival collections in your research.

Contact Us
  (312) 369-7120
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  College Archives and Special Collections
at Columbia College Chicago
619 South Wabash Avenue, Suite 201
Chicago, IL 60605