Manuscripts and Special Collections

Extending access by making copies

Researchers from all around the world can study items from our collections by making use of our reprographics service, by consulting printed editions, or by browsing the increasing amount of material available in digital form online.

Reprographic service 

Photocopying is only appropriate for a small range of archive materials, mostly loose printed papers or papers with plain ink writing on them. Photocopying is an invasive procedure, subjecting the original item to an intense burst of light, and it therefore has the potential to damage documents. It is unsuitable for bound volumes and any other item that would need to be pressed down for copying.

It is safer to copy material by scanning it or photographing it (without flash).

Information about our reprographics (copying) service is available on our website.

Surrogate copies

In the Reading Room, we sometimes ask researchers to use a copy instead of seeing the original item. This may be because the item is already too fragile to handle; or it may be because the item is very popular, and repeated handling would put it at serious risk of damage. In some cases we provide a printed surrogate copy or facsimile in place of the original; in other cases we ask readers to use a microfilm or microfiche copy.

 Surrogate copy of letters, bound into a volume for production in the Reading Room (La Z 4/3)

Surrogate copy of letters, bound into a volume for production in the Reading Room (La Z 4/3)

Microfilms and microfiches have been available since the mid-twentieth century and have been used by researchers very successfully. People studying one particular manuscript in detail can often find it more cost-effective to purchase a microfilm reel to use at home or in their office, than to make an expensive journey in person to see the original document. Nowadays, archive offices might supply digital images in place of microforms.

Printed editions

Some important documents have been published in scholarly editions. In these cases it may not be necessary to travel to see the original. Published editions may contain images, full transcriptions, and even translations if the document is not written in modern English.

‘Calendars’ are very detailed summaries of original documents, which sometimes include transcribed passages and extracts. These give researchers access to the content of documents and may provide enough information to avoid the need to travel to see the original.


Increasingly, archive offices are digitising parts of their collections and making them available online. Curators have to make decisions about which materials are appropriate for digitisation. It is a time-consuming and expensive process, and the legal rights of owners and copyright holders have to be respected. Therefore, it is only possible to digitise a small proportion of the original material held in archive offices and place it online for unrestricted public access.

There are a number of different ways in which material is currently digitised and made available.

Archive staff, sometimes with help from their users, can make a selection of appropriate material from their collections. These ‘cherry-picked’ selections usually relate to each other by having a similar theme or subject matter. The images may be placed online in a gallery, like our Digital Gallery. Alternatively, they may form the basis for online exhibitions, or web-based learning resources, accompanied by interpretative text helping to place the documents and images in context.

Another way to provide digital copies is to digitise entire manuscripts or runs of documents. This type of mass digitisation is usually part of a specially-funded project. The resulting digital images are sometimes available only to subscribers. For instance, in recent years, JISC has funded a large number of digitisation projects in partnership with many universities, libraries and publishing houses.

If you are a member of a further or higher education institution, you should find that you have access to a very wide range of material from your desktop. If you are a private researcher, you may find that you can be granted ‘visitor’ access to these materials by becoming a member of a large research library. The scheme to allow external users to access electronic material at The University of Nottingham is called the Walk-in User service.

Mass digitisation is a great benefit for researchers who would otherwise need to spend a considerable amount of time and money travelling between archive offices. However, mass digitisation projects normally present images of documents without any accompanying explanation. They may be written in handwriting which is difficult to read, they may be in a foreign language, the writer may have used archaic or technical terminology, or the item might be out of sequence or context. In all these cases it might be easier for the researcher to come in person, to investigate how the material relates to other items in the archive office, and to benefit from the experience and expertise of archive staff.


Next page: Storing audio-visual and electronic media

Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
fax: +44 (0) 115 846 8651