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Finding and Using Materials in Rare Books and Special Collections

Materials at Rare Books and Special Collections

This is a guide to finding and using materials in Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) at UBC Library.

Rare Books and Special Collections acquires books and pamphlets in a number of areas of specialization. Our main interests are the exploration, history, literature, maps, social life, and peoples of British Columbia. We also have strong interests in Canadian history and literature, selected areas of English literature, children’s literature, and maps and cartobibliography, the history of science and medicine, as well as Guangdong Province of China.

The archival collections include materials documenting the economic, political, cultural, labour, and literary history of British Columbia. Archival holdings also support research and teaching at UBC generally, and collects archives related to English literature, European history, and other teaching areas.

Rare Books and Special Collections’ holdings of cartographic archives and historical maps are especially strong in pre-1800 world/hemispheres, pre-1900 North America and Pacific Rim, fire insurance plans of B.C. towns and cities, and Edo-period Japan. Also acquired as parts of larger archival collections and fonds are collections of maps (both printed and hand-drawn), architectural drawings, and plans and blueprints.

To learn more about our collecting areas and guidelines, click here. To see other research guides by Rare Books and Special Collections, click here.

Books, archival materials, and special collections

What are rare books?

RBSC defines rare books broadly as books that are hard to find or replace. Some books have qualities that make them more rare, valuable, or increase their research or monetary value. Some of these qualities include:

  • Scarcity: The number of existing copies can be a contributing factor to a book’s research and monetary value. Some books are printed in very limited editions, making the books hard to find or replace as soon as they are produced. Some books become rare as fewer copies survive over time.
  • Provenance: Provenance relates to the ownership, custody, or location of a specific copy of a book. Books with significant provenance can include association copies, which might have been owned by the author or someone closely associated with the author, or presentation copies, which might have been signed and given as a gift. Provenance can also be reflected in annotations, bookplates, stamps, etc., which make a specific book unique.
  • Significance: Significance can sometimes be difficult to quantify, but a book can be deemed significant based on its contribution to a body of knowledge. First edition prints of significant books may have research or monetary value. Certain books may also carry local or regional significance.
  • Condition and physical and aesthetic properties: An original binding, complete condition, fine binding, or original colour plates or illustrations can contribute to a book's value.

​Further resources about rare books:
Rare Books and Manuscripts Section 
Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America FAQs 
Antiquarian Booksellers' Association Evaluating Books

What are archives?

Archives are accumulations of records in any format or medium, or institutions that house these materials. In Canada, as well as the United States and many European and Latin American countries, the word "fonds" is most often used to describe an individual collection of archival material within an archival institution. "Fonds" is defined as the accumulated materials created or received by a person, family, or organization over the course of their personal and/or professional activities. For example, the "Jane Smith fonds" would refer to the records created and received by Jane Smith. A fonds may be kept in archives due to its materials' enduring value or as evidence of the activities of its creator. In addition to fonds, archives have collections, which are materials assembled from a variety of sources or thematic groupings of otherwise unrelated archival materials. Archival materials are often unique items, such as family letters, where only one copy exists.

Rare Books and Special Collections uses AtoM (Access to Memory) as a database to manage our archival holdings.

​Further resources about archival materials:
Society of American Archivists glossary entry for archives 
Society of American Archivists glossary entry for collections 
Society of American Archivists glossary entry for fonds

What are special collections?

A special collection is thematic collection of materials with high research value. In a special collection, individual items may not have a high research or monetary value, but when the materials are considered together, they provide a rich research site and allow for the exploration of deeper themes on a particular topic. Special collections can be made up of exclusively books, archival materials, maps, or can be a combination of various formats.

Further resources about special collections:
Society of American Archivists glossary entry for special collections