Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

On Materiality

What is Materiality and why does it matter?

Within our archives and collections of rare books, you can find many different types of materials, such as photographs, textiles, letters, newspapers, scrapbooks, glass slides, artifacts, and much more, even locks of hair. Analyzing the material culture and working with a variety of formats can enrich and inspire the research process.

The material, functionality, and format of an item or artifact can present us with important information about the item’s intentional use, its provenance (meaning where it came from), its maker, and its previous owner and their status in society. This information can also allow us to relate our own experiences with primary sources and consider feelings that are associated with them. 

In recent years, digitization of library materials has expanded rapidly. With digital conversion, not every element of materiality can be preserved in the digital surrogate. However, through reliable and selective digital capture, the embodiment of the physical object can be transferred into a digital file. In some cases, due to advancements in modern imaging technology, digital surrogates of physical materials even have the potential to amplify the originality of a physical object.

Let’s take a look at a selection of materials from USC Libraries Special Collections and see what we can learn by looking at them closely:

Judge a Book by its Cover!

Book of Hours, Northern France, 1460s.

This book showcases very elaborate craftsmanship. It is a one of a kind, custom-made item which features illumination/gold leaf and was produced by hand by specialists. Its elaborate style and the level of craftsmanship tell us that this book belonged to a person of high status who could afford such things.  

The style of decoration and the binding can help us identify the location of production, in this case Northern France.

Don't judge a Book by it's Cover!

Professor Lindsay O’Neill from USC’s Department of History advises viewers that while some books, when closed, may appear unremarkable, it's what's between the covers that is of paramount importance. Featured here is USC's copy of Galileo's final book, Discorsi e dimostrazioni matimatiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) published in 1638, a sort of summary of his life's research into the science of physics.

Nothing lasts forever!

Victorian Era Broadside pamphlets and Punk Rock Flyers.

In contrast to the Book of Hours, this Victorian Era Broadside pamphlet (posters of the day) and these Punk Rock Flyers represent a group of materials which we call ephemera which means materials that were produced for one-time use and not intended to last. Ephemera were generally produced for distribution to large parts of society. You can see this with the Victorian Era Broadside pamphlets which are printed on thin paper and mostly feature only black ink. They were produced in a relatively cheap way and thus hundreds or thousands were produced to reach the lower and middle classes of society. We see a similar approach in the Punk Rock Flyers from the 1990s. They were mostly done by hand, photocopied, and then distributed widely. (Collection items from our Victorian broadsides, manuscripts, and pamphlet collection and from our Sara Sutler-Cohen collection of punk and heavy metal music flyers.)

Size Matters!

Civil War Diary and Snuff box or Match Safe

This diary and snuff box or match safe from a soldier fighting in the Civil War allows us to analyze what the size of an item can tell us about the use of an item. The diary and the snuff box or match safe are really tiny; and that’s for very practical reasons. A soldier fighting in the civil war wasn’t able to carry along many belongings. The things they cared for the most had to be worn close to the body and had to fit in the pockets of their uniforms. So the size of these items tells us a lot about how and where they were carried and the value they had to the soldier.

What can the Size of a Book tell us?

Professor Lindsay O’Neill from USC’s Department of History looks at what the size of a book can tell us about its function. Featured here are a large Mexican manuscript from the 16th century and a miniature Psalter (book of Psalms) from 1640.


A highly valued memory

Ambrotype photograph.

This ambrotype photograph of a civil war soldier is framed in a suede-covered, highly ornate box with a gold-colored frame. It looks very impressive and expensive. The quality of the material and the craftsmanship can tell us about the importance the photograph had for its owner. Maybe it belonged to the mother or wife of the soldier and was made as a memorial.


1. This activity is inspired by Louisiana State University, Libguide, Teaching with Special Collections 

2.  Find a book/artifact/primary source (e.g. painting, post card, note book, etc). The item does not have to be in a library or Special Collections department. You may check what you can find at home.

Describe the physical object
- Quality of any illustrations
- Quality of the printing (feel the paper)
- Publishing dates and printer names
- Type of binding
- Indications of previous use/wear
- Writing in the text
- The object’s condition/whether or not it’s original to the work
- Size of the book/object

3. Note any feelings/people associated with the item


Here are some additional questions you may ask yourself when looking at the material characteristics of primary sources:


Sources & further reading:

Teaching Materiality Online with Rubenstein Library
The Aura of Materiality: Digital Surrogacy and the Preservation of Photographic Archives

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