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Archives and Special Collections: Understanding original documents and rare books


Durham City Guild of Masons apprentice register 1682-1961

An illustration showing Adam and Eve eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge


What are original documents and rare books? 

Historians of any period or subject use original documents in their research. These come in many forms, but all were created during or soon after the time the researcher is interested in. 

The phrase ‘rare books’ usually refers to printed books created between around 1450 and 1830. What makes these books special is that they were hand-made rather than produced by a machine and were usually published in smaller numbers than today. Although the content of some early printed books is now available online, researchers are also interested in the physical books themselves. 

What skills do I need? 

Studying a medieval manuscript written in Latin is not the same as analysing a twentieth-century photograph or researching early printed books. You may need to understand how the document or book was created, when, where, by whom, and for whom. 

You may also need to know about 

  • historic handwriting (palaeography) 

  • foreign languages, such as French or Latin 

  • specialist English terminology used in official documents 

  • searching online or card catalogues 

Getting started 

Have a look at the following resources 

To find out about our archives and rare books, use our online catalogue Discover or get in touch with us if you have any questions. We are happy to help!