Special Collections: Collection development strategy

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Our strategic collecting mission 

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library serves the University of Virginia as its principal repository for university archives, rare books, manuscripts, and other primary source materials in original format, including born-digital content. Our curators conscientiously and strategically develop collections which support the missions of the University and of the University of Virginia Library by acquiring, preserving, and making accessible materials which document the depth and diversity of the preserved cultural record. 

We build collections in order to enrich student learning and to encourage intellectual exploration, innovation, and knowledge creation in partnership with our diverse user community.  In fulfilling our mission, we seek to employ a conscious and reparative collecting model: that is, to prioritize use of our collecting resources to acquire materials created by and documenting the experiences of underrepresented voices and communities.


We acquire materials that serve the UVA community. We do this not just by fulfilling existing research needs, but by building collections that generate research and teaching initiatives and by helping lay new intellectual paths for our faculty and students. 

We also acquire materials that serve our diverse local, regional, national, and international research community. The unique nature of our holdings means that we are the primary site globally for research on many subjects.

We are committed to the integrity of the object. Our collections consist of objects whose material characteristics are essential for fully understanding and appreciating the texts or images they carry. As befits a university renowned for its contributions to bibliography, for all texts in any format, we define “duplicate” broadly and pay close attention to the physical features of potential acquisitions. Materiality, whether of a physical or digital object, is fundamental to special collections research. 

We avoid acquiring materials which are unlikely to receive appreciable use by our research and instruction communities. If a potential donation falls outside our collecting scope, we can often recommend other libraries committed to stewarding similar collections. 

We believe it is important to keep collections together. We avoid acquiring archival material that should be part of a collection located at another institution. 

We ensure responsible endowment stewardship. Many donors have generously contributed to the endowed funds we use for acquisitions. In spending these funds in accordance with their defined purposes, we invest in the future of the University of Virginia. Our aim is to generate a consistently high ‘return’ on this investment by developing our collections as effectively as possible  through thoughtful, strategic decision making. We monitor trends in the antiquarian book, manuscript, and archival markets, and we try to avoid paying unrealistically high prices.

We employ a reparative collecting strategy. Our collections skew towards documenting only some creators, communities, organizations, and national cultural histories.  Past collecting methods, built upon UVA’s legacy of institutional investment in enslavement, eugenics, anti-integration efforts and male-only higher education, mean that we have most heavily invested resources in documenting white men of economic privilege. Such practices have led to significant gaps in the archival and bibliographical record that inevitably limit scholarship and do not support a full range of instruction opportunities. 

To address this issue, we prioritize using our resources to acquire materials that document under-collected voices. These efforts go beyond repairing past damage: when seeking out contemporary materials, we prioritize published works by traditionally undervalued and underrepresented voices, and archival documentation of communities whose experiences are at risk of going unnoticed and uncollected. This work includes supporting community collection building: we are eager to provide advice and support when wanted by members of the relevant community who are not interested in transferring their collections to an institution.

We employ an ethics of care framework when evaluating acquisitions. An ethics of care approach emphasizes the relationships inherent between staff and record creators, subjects, researchers, donors, and larger communities. We consider the impacts that our acquisition, description, and access decisions will have upon all individuals associated with the collection.

We employ a holistic collecting strategy. We acquire materials that interconnect in both clear and serendipitous ways with existing collection materials, thereby strengthening their already dense and complex linkages. It is this dynamic web of connections which elevates our collection’s research potential far beyond the sum of its parts.

  • We build upon existing strengths in order to support deep research and knowledge creation.
  • We expand into new collecting areas when there are compelling reasons and appropriate resources to do so. Such decisions require careful consideration: are we committed to building upon this initial acquisition, adding further materials that support it as a research area? what existing collecting areas will lose resources so we can support this new area? do our staff have the expertise to steward the materials and future acquisitions responsibly?
  • We address imbalances in our collections. Despite our success in building a collection with nationally and internationally recognized strengths, our holdings remain imbalanced in significant ways. Such imbalances may occur in geographical coverage, formats, languages and scripts, ethnicity, gender, and culture. It is a high priority to address these imbalances by collecting creatively and proactively.
  • We prioritize acquiring materials that are not widely held. In doing so we make more effective use of our limited resources and ensure that our holdings remain truly distinctive and less duplicative of those in other libraries. By bringing such materials into an institution whose collections are available to everyone, we ensure that the widest possible audience can find and use them. 
  • We avoid replicating the research strengths of other institutions unless there are compelling reasons to develop comparable or complementary collections at UVA. 
  • We aim for a broad-based general collection in support of instruction and research.
  • We assess the impact of acquisitions on every part of our operation. For this reason we take particular care when considering the acquisition of large collections, born-digital materials, materials in languages not supported by staff expertise, fragile and otherwise compromised materials, and other materials that will require exceptional resources.

How we make decisions

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library has the capacity to acquire and steward only a small percentage of the materials offered by donors and dealers. Therefore, we are highly selective in what we add to the collection.

Our curatorial team makes most acquisitions decisions, with the advice of UVA colleagues as appropriate.  The Library’s Collections Committee reviews offers over a certain dollar amount and/or size and makes recommendations accordingly to the Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Preservation or the Dean of Libraries as appropriate.  We document these decisions for the administrative record.

Before we accept donations or make purchases—whether of single items or a sizable collection—we carefully assess such factors as condition, fit with collections strategy, gift terms, and anticipated processing, conservation, and storage costs. There is no set formula. Decisions reflect institutional objectives, which may differ from a donor’s objectives in building the collection under consideration. Collection development staff work actively to be aware of the biases we bring to the work as a result of our identities, education, and intellectual interests, and to ensure that such biases are kept in check through active engagement with users, fellow library staff, and our local community.

The Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library is responsible for complying with federal and state statutes and professional best practices that provide for the respectful treatment and disposition of objects of cultural patrimony, human remains and specific classes of cultural items, included sacred ceremonial objects, encountered on state and private lands from the time of encounter until repatriation. To this end, one of our core responsibilities is to ensure that protected cultural items are identified and treated with respect and dignity, in compliance with University of Virginia’s policies, regulations and guidelines from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and all established Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requirements. These principles inform the Library’s practices of acquisition, documentation, preservation, access and description of such objects. Whenever possible, we aim to work directly with stakeholders to ensure proactive policy development and improved practices.


Scope: We collect broadly in terms of chronology, language, subject, and format in order to support the University’s wide-ranging teaching and research objectives. Our generous donors regularly offer us opportunities to consider new collecting areas. Still, we cannot collect in every field or accept every gift. As we consider materials we address key issues: does the material usefully advance the University's mission? does the material justify the anticipated costs of processing, preservation, and permanent retention?  

In certain areas we defer to, or collaborate with, our rich community of special collections and cultural heritage units at UVA, such as:

Age will not by itself determine whether an item is appropriate for our collections. Old books are not necessarily rare or of high research value, and we may add in-print publications in order to ensure that a copy survives in perpetuity. Archives of living individuals and those of active organizations may be acquired with the expectation that future materials may be added.

Condition is of major importance. We carefully assess the condition of collections and items in all formats to determine whether we have the capability to steward them. We avoid acquiring materials in poor physical condition (e.g. badly stained and soiled, mildewed, very brittle, damaged binding) unless their rarity or intrinsic importance offsets the physical defects. 

Unique materials, especially archival materials and manuscripts, pose a particular challenge: these cannot be turned away in hopes of a better copy surfacing later on. Yet we may have to refuse manuscript materials in extremely poor condition. Although it may be possible to conserve items so that researchers can handle them safely and productively, the work can be expensive, risky to staff, and exceed our limited resources. Digital surrogates may be the only option for some items, and making and stewarding these is likewise costly. 

Completeness and physical integrity are also highly important. We avoid acquiring printed materials that lack pages, illustrations, portions of text, or publisher’s binding, or have been sophisticated, unless their rarity or intrinsic importance offsets these defects. Such imperfections greatly reduce an item’s research and instructional value; we prefer to wait for the opportunity to acquire a complete copy in sound condition. 

Donors are asked to avoid rearranging and culling archival collections, such as inherited personal papers in physical and digital form, until our curators have an opportunity to discuss and, ideally, view the materials in person. Often, materials that may seem worthless have significant research value; likewise, the manner in which an individual chooses to organize their files can shed light on their life and work.

We generally avoid acquiring archival collections of an individual or organization if another repository is already the established “home” for archival research on that subject. We encourage donors to offer additional material to the home repository first, and we are happy to put donors in contact with the relevant staff there.  

Digital copies and reproductions: We do not acquire born-digital archival and manuscript material held in other institutions. Books that are available in digital form are more complicated.  Because we are committed to preserving and providing access to materials in original format, we would not decline a potential printed acquisition simply because a digital copy can be accessed through the UVA Library’s online catalog. However, we may prioritize the purchase of materials not otherwise available to the UVA community over those available in digital form. 

We typically do not accept reproductions (e.g. photostats, photocopies, microfilm, digital images) of materials held by other libraries or in private hands, except when they are integral to an archival collection. We do selectively acquire printed facsimiles of books and manuscripts. We occasionally accept offprints of published articles.

Editions and translations: First editions of works relevant to our collecting priorities are always of interest, as are “best” and final revised editions. In some collecting areas we may seek all textually significant editions, all editions published during an author’s lifetime, or editions and translations useful for documenting the publishing history and public reception of a text. For a comprehensive author collection, we may seek every edition, issue, state, and translation to the extent of our resources. Later editions are often overlooked by research libraries and may now be quite rare, so we acquire these on a case-by-case basis.

Duplicate copies of printed materials: We do not add true duplicates, i.e. copies that are textually identical to, and display no bibliographical variants from, those already in our collection. Commonly offered exact duplicates include copies of the UVA yearbook, Corks and Curls, most of which we already hold in multiple copies. We do selectively acquire added copies bearing copy-specific features we consider useful for research, instruction, or exhibition.  These may include bindings (including variant publisher’s bindings), ownership markings, and readers’ annotations; but we cannot accept every copy with these features. In making decisions we consider such factors as the significance and quality of a binding, how well known an owner was, the owner’s relationship to a particular community of interest to us, the owner’s association with that copy, how a reader marked or used the copy, the nature and content of ownership or presentation inscriptions &c. Authors’ signatures, particularly in twentieth-century books, are fairly common; though often desirable to collectors, they rarely have significant research value. 

Artifacts and memorabilia: Often, archives are accompanied by artifacts and memorabilia that provide important context to the archive’s subject. For this reason, we acquire three-dimensional objects on a highly selective basis due to the high and ongoing costs of processing, conserving, and storing these items. Framed items such as certificates, broadsides and photographs are generally un-framed and frames discarded to save space and expose hidden information about the artifact. We do not generally collect plaques or trophies. 

Fine and decorative arts: We acquire selectively in the area of fine and decorative art objects and collections. When offered artworks as potential gifts, we will make decisions in accordance with University gift policy

Out-of-scope items: Certain categories of materials typically fall outside our collecting scope, though there may be exceptions:

  • Single volumes of sets or incomplete sets 
  • Bibles
  • Modern encyclopedias and textbooks
  • Collected editions of an author’s works published after the author’s death
  • Reprints, photocopies, and newspaper clippings
  • Collectible newspaper issues documenting major events
  • Plaques and trophies 
  • Copies of the UVA Yearbook "Corks and Curls" 

International regulations: Some materials we consider for acquisition may be subject to laws concerning the export of cultural property. We will not acquire such materials unless the donor or seller furnishes proof of legal export. 

Transfers from circulating collections: We have long collaborated with UVA Library colleagues to identify items in the circulating collections which merit transfer to Special Collections because of rarity, value, copy-specific features, or heightened risk of damage or loss. In recent years many potential transfer candidates have been relocated to Ivy Stacks, the Library’s high-density storage facility, where they can be designated “medium-rare,” i.e. requested for consultation only in the Special Collections Reading Room. When evaluating transfer candidates, especially those shelved in Ivy Stacks, our preferred option in most cases is to designate these as “medium-rare.” If a potential transfer is in poor condition, we may decide instead to acquire for Special Collections a second copy in better condition.


We are invested in making our collections available openly to all users to the fullest extent possible. However, in certain situations, we apply restrictions at the point of acquisition, for reasons of ethical best practices and federal and state law. Examples include redaction of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) that goes beyond directory-type information. Examples of directory information include name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and in the case of University records, dates of attendance. Collections that contain student records will be restricted according to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Collections containing protected health information (PHI) remain confidential and are subject to restrictions due to ethical and privacy concerns.


From time to time we may identify materials—ranging from single items to entire collections—appropriate for deaccessioning. These may include materials identified as exact duplicates or damaged beyond repair, deemed out of scope during processing, or reappraised in consideration of updates to the collection development strategy. 

Materials considered for deaccession are carefully reviewed and, as appropriate, deaccessioned in compliance with any donor agreements or legal restrictions, professional best practices, and professional standards such as the Association of College and Research Libraries Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians, the Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics for Archivists, and the Society of American Archivists Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning

Deaccessioned materials may be transferred to another repository; returned to the donor if applicable; sold, disposed of, donated or transferred in accordance with University of Virginia surplus property policies; or destroyed as appropriate. We do not monetize our collections by deaccessioning materials in order to raise funds. Final deaccessioning decisions are made by the Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Preservation or the Dean of Libraries as appropriate.

The library collects social media related to some collection priorities, and will consider deaccession, or “take down,” requests from members of the public whose public social media posts have been acquired as part of a collecting project. In some cases, these materials will be permanently removed from the collection, and in other cases they may be restricted for a defined period of time. We may decline to take down collected social media of public figures and organizations.

 Contacting Special Collections 

Acquiring materials begins with a conversation. Donors must contact a collection development team member before shipping or delivering materials to the library. Staff are happy to hold in-person consultations regarding potential gifts with a scheduled appointment, and under certain circumstances, staff will travel to inspect prospective donations. For inquiries, contact the collection development team at small-curatorial@virginia.edu.

Whether you are considering donating a single book or an entire personal archive, we request that you provide us with as much descriptive information as possible. Full lists, narrative descriptions, and images are particularly helpful. Feel free to send these along as an attachment when setting up a donation discussion appointment.

When possible, avoid culling or reorganizing archival materials in advance of a donation conversation. Often, materials that may not seem important have research value, and the manner in which files are arranged can provide future researchers with important context. 

Please note that we can accept only some of the materials generously offered to us. For more information on how we assess proposed gifts and a list of out-of-scope items, see How We Make Decisions above.

Preparing donations for shipment or delivery

Library staff can answer your questions about how to manage materials in the course of emptying a home or office. We are happy to advise donors on methods for packing materials safely and on shipping options.

For in-depth advice on preparing personal papers and organizational records, we recommend the following documents from the Society of American Archivists:

Transferring ownership

Donors of collection materials transfer legal title in the materials to the University of Virginia Library by executing a formal deed of gift. Donors must hold legal title in order to transfer ownership. In consultation with the donor, Library staff will draft a deed of gift for the donor to complete and sign; it is then countersigned by a Library representative and the appropriate university official.   

Taxes and appraisals

Donors of collection materials to the University of Virginia Library are eligible for a tax deduction as permitted by law. For further information on charitable deductions, consult IRS Publication 526: Charitable Contributions. Library staff cannot provide tax advice; we advise donors to seek authoritative advice from their tax advisor.

Under current federal law, donors seeking a tax deduction for donated collection materials valued at more than $500 must file IRS Form 8283. For gifts exceeding $5,000, the donor must obtain and submit with Form 8283 a written appraisal prepared by a qualified appraiser. The Form 8283, with appraisal, must be sent to Special Collections for an authorized university signature before it can be filed with the donor’s tax return.

See IRS Publication 561: Determining the Value of Donated Property for information on the appraisal process. Per university policy, Library staff cannot appraise donated materials, either formally or informally. As a convenience to donors, Special Collections offers a list of appraisers in our region who have given us permission to list their names, contact information, and a self-supplied description of their fields of expertise. Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the University of Virginia. Members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America who are willing to appraise donations are listed in its membership directory, which can be searched by location and specialty. We are happy to work with appraisers needing to examine donated materials. Please note that it is the donor’s responsibility to arrange and pay for an appraisal.

The online resource “Your Old Books” offers general information for prospective donors on valuing printed items and donating materials to libraries. Donors of printed items in search of “comparable sales” to help in valuing their gifts may find the following websites helpful:

Supporting your donation 

We welcome any financial contribution donors wish to make to the Library when they donate books, archives, and other materials. Gifts and donations enhance our ability to support the research, teaching, and service aspects of our mission. Such gifts are tax-deductible and may be used to offset costs of cataloging, processing, conservation, housing, and shelving, and the longer-term costs of making donated materials more widely accessible to the Library community through digitization, classroom use, exhibitions, websites, public programming, and other initiatives.

Donors may inform curators of their wish to make a financial contribution while discussing a potential gift; curators will put donors in touch with the appropriate staff member to manage the financial gift process. Learn more about making financial contributions to the Library on the web or contact Sean Clarkson at (434) 962-3509 or sdc3dw@virginia.edu.

Temporary deposits

The Library does not accept material on deposit or loan, with the exception of some items in the Fine and Decorative Arts Collection. This policy includes materials that donors plan to give in the future. When a donation is underway, we may accept the material into our space for a limited time only for the purposes of making that material easily and safely available to qualified appraisers. In these rare cases, the Library and the donor will sign a Memorandum of Understanding that clearly defines the material being deposited and the time limit for its temporary residence in our spaces.

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