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Special Collections and Rare Books

This guide is an introduction to Special Collections at Iowa State University.

Finding what you need

This page of the guide lists tools you will need to access our collections and how to get started reviewing what we have. You can search for collections via the internet but the actual materials have to be used in our reading room, with the exception of material that is available online.  Most of our materials are found using collection descriptions called "finding aids." A finding aid is a tool that serves to describe the contents of a particular collection, how the collection is organized, and who or where it came from. 

How to Get Started with Manuscript Collections and University Archives

SCUA homepage


  • Browse Subjects is are a great place to start. A selection of collections descriptions (finding aids) are grouped together by subject.


  • Start reviewing finding aids (collection descriptions, often includes inventories). Reviewing finding aids can give you an idea of what boxes you may want to look at during your visit. Often the descriptions will be very brief, only titles of folders.
  • Contact us with any questions you have about the collections or if you are having trouble finding what you need.

What's the difference between Manuscript Collections & University Archives?

Both Manuscript Collections and University Archives contain the same types of materials, such as papers photographs, film, audiovisual, artifacts, etc. Their primary difference relates to where the records originate. 


Manuscript Collections include personal papers and organizational records that have a strong emphasis on the major research areas of Iowa State University, but are not directly affiliated with the university.


University Archives includes Iowa State University administrative records, faculty papers, and alumni collections. University Archives are records created by the university -- by faculty, staff, students, colleges, departments, units, centers, institutes, programs, etc.


How to Get Started Finding Rare Books

This type of search is most useful search option if you want to know everything the library has on a topic and want to know what is in Special Collections.

Library home page showing Quick Search.

  • Enter search terms in the Quick Search. Hit Search.
  • In the sidebar, there are multiple ways to limit your search. Look for the Collections facet and check the box for "Special Collections."
  • If "Special Collections" does not appear under Collections, that means there were no results in Special Collections for the search term(s) you entered.

Image of search results with right sidebar showing Special Collections outlined in a red box under the Collections facet.

  • You can use the other facets to further limit your search as needed.


This type of search is most useful if you only want or need to use publications from Special Collections.

Quick Search with Advanced Search option circled in red.


  • In the Search Scope drop down, select "Special Collections"


  • You can make the search as complex or simple as you like. You can:
    • search by specific title or author name
    • search by a Library of Congress subject heading
    • specify a specific language of the publication
    • limit the search to a particular publication date or date range
  • You can use any combination of these searches to find specifically what you are looking for.

Screenshot of advanced search screen with various search options outlined in red

Tips for sorting through and understanding your search results.


  • It may be useful when searching for rare books to Sort by Date-oldest, especially if you are looking for an older book:

Screenshot showing options for sorting results.

Understanding location

  • Some books may only be available in Special Collections, and some may be available in other locations also.

Screenshot of different search results

  • If you click on the result that has copies at "Parks Library Special Collections ... and other locations," you can see where else these books are held.

Screenshot showing copies of item available in both Special Collections and General Collection

  • In the example above, the book is available in both Special Collections and the General Collection.
  • If this General Collection copy is not checked out, it should be available for checkout at the library's Main Desk on the first floor.
  • The copy in Special Collections must be viewed in our reading room during the hours we are open. It is not available for checkout.

Finding Aids

A finding aid is the primary tool for accessing and understanding archival materials. Finding aids establish a historical context for the collection, describe the scope and contents of the materials, indicate how the collection is arranged, and list where the collection is located and how it may be accessed.

Finding aids used to be primarily printed documents but many are available online. Our finding aids are available online in our archival catalog, CARDinal. Click on the tabs in this box to learn about the common parts of our finding aids.

NOTE: The examples provided here are from finding aids in the Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives. While the major elements are found in finding aids at most archives, each archives generally uses a slightly different format.

The summary gives the basic information about a collection: a title, the name of the person who created the materials, the dates of the collection, the extent, the reference code, and the repository where the collection is located. There is no standard term for this part of the finding aid, so you may find it described as "collection overview," untitled, or some other variant.

Screenshot of part of Warren H. Manning finding aid in CARDinal showing Collection Overview section, with green circles over Identifier, Dates, and Extent fields.

The administrative information section may also be called "access and use." It provides information about restrictions on access, how to cite materials from the collection, and who to contact about copyright and publishing questions. It may also include information about how the collection came to the archives, who wrote the finding aid, and other information related to the management of the collection. Administrative information may also exist in multiple sections. We have administration information in Collection Overview, Additional Description, Finding Aid & Administrative Information, and Repository Details tabs.


Collection Overview  section contains Access Restrictions & Use/Re-Use Restrictions. At the top right hand corner of this section there is also a Citation button.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal in the Collection Overview section, with green circles highlighting Access Restrictions & Use/Re-Use Restrictions fields, and Citation button.

In Additional Description there is information on Copies and Processing Information, and the tab Finding Aid & Administrative Information includes Collection Number, Title, date ranges.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal in the Additional Description section, with green circles highlighting Copies, Collection Files, and Processing Information fields. Green circle highlighting all contents of Finding Aid & Administrative section.Repository Details is the last tab on page and includes contact information.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Repository Details sections with includes contact information for SCUA.

Scope and Content is the collection description provides an overview of the materials in the collection. 


Scope and Content is located in the Collection Overview section. 

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Scope and Content information found in Collection Overview section.

The Biography/Profile provides information on the person, family, or organization that created the materials. Historical/Biographical notes are similar to encyclopedia entries and can be great resources for learning about the background of a person or organization as well as the context the collection was created. Also referred to as a Historical note.


Biography/Profile information is located in Collection Overview.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Biography/Profile field in Collection Overview Section.

Electronic Resources provides access (links) to digitized materials from or related to the collection or born-digital records from the collection. Not all collections will have this information because not all of our collections have digitized materials or born-digital materials.


Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Digital Materials tab.

This section of the finding aid explains how the materials are arranged. Some collections have sections called series (also called record groups or record series). Each series may be organized differently. If there are no series in the collection, then the collection is usually organized alphabetically by folder title, chronologically, or in its original order. Common arrangements for collections with series are: alphabetically, by activity area, by format, by topic, chronologically, or some other specified arrangement.


You can see how a collection is organized by viewing Collection Organization.

 Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Collection Information tab at top and on right hand side of finding aid. 


Another option is to scroll down to Additional Description and the Arrangement of the collection is shared here also.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Arrangement field in Additional Description section with green arrow pointing towards it.


The inventory (also referred to as the container list) is a comprehensive listing of the materials that are within the collection. The detail provided will vary between collections and between archives. If the collection is arranged in series, the container list will indicate which boxes and folders are found in which series. Each series may also have its own content description, dates, and arrangement.


Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Collection Inventory tab at top of finding aid menu, beneath Title and Scope and Content. 

Collection number: The number used to refer to the collection. At Iowa State, these take the form of MS 314 or RS 08/08/04. Sometimes called an "identifier" or "reference code." (formal definition)

Context: How something was used, kept, and/or came into being. (formal definition)

Extent: The physical quantity of material in the collection (formal definition)

Finding Aid: A document prepared by the archives that establishes a historical context for the collection, describes the scope and contents of the materials, indicates how the collection is arranged, and lists where the collection is located and how it may be accessed. (formal definition)

Original Order: The arrangement in which the materials were kept while they were being actively used. (formal definition)

Restriction: A limitation on how or when a person can access and/or use the collection or parts of the collection. (formal definition)

Series: A group of similar records within a collection (formal definition)


Accessing Our Online Collections & Resources

Contact us

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Special Collections & University Archives
403 Parks Library
701 Morrill Road
Iowa State University Library
Ames, IA 50011
515 294-6672

Contact us before you visit!

You will get access to the materials much faster if you contact the archives in advance. Here's why:

  • Off-site/Library Storage Building materials can take up to seven business days to retrieve. Please email to request material and schedule your visit.
  • Related materials: Even if you have something specific you want to see (and know how to request it), we may have suggestions for other materials.
  • Check the holdings: As with most archives, many of our collections don't have detailed descriptions. If you're looking for a specific document or piece of information, contact the archives before making a trip so that you won't be disappointed if the collection doesn't have what you're looking for.
  • Research Help: We understand that using archives can be complicated. We know our collections and are truly happy to help!