Manchester Digital Collections (MDC) was launched in January 2020 with five sets of digitised materials from the world-class collections of the University of Manchester Library, Whitworth Gallery and Manchester Museum. We aimed to provide a platform of IIIF images and TEI metadata for researchers to share their work on collections and to encourage digital scholarship activities.[1] Within two months, the pandemic and lockdowns forced a reassessment of priorities. To continue providing access to collections, we worked intensively to increase the range and depth of digital collections on MDC. A year later, there are 22 collections available, with 15,000 unique page views of collections to date: an average of 1000 per month.

MDC is based upon the Cambridge Digital Library platform. Its enhanced functionality includes in-depth zoom of high-quality images, display of transcriptions, extremely detailed metadata and information about objects and, crucially, the ability to curate complete objects into subsets, or collections. This has offered a vital opportunity to provide meaningful global access to our rare and unique collections for researchers unable to visit the Library in person during the pandemic.

While the project had always been a collaboration between the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge, the shift to increased content creation required intense cross-team working within our Library. This was a challenge exacerbated by colleagues working from home and only able to collaborate digitally. However, the ability to focus our attentions on MDC and the increased urgency for accessible digital collections proved positive, leading to swift implementation of cross-team workflows and accelerated sharing of specific skills and knowledge. From April 2020 two or three diverse collections were launched each month, ranging in theme from anti-slavery to early modern printed books to photographic jewellery and Hebrew manuscripts.[2] These were almost entirely based on existing digital content and metadata from various sources. Launching these collections would not have been possible without a proposal process open to all staff and the intense prioritisation of time and focus.

There were also challenges in aligning the work of different teams and reconciling collections with different physical formats, descriptive standards and levels of metadata. The Papyrus to Print collection, developed to support the teaching of two MA courses (Palaeography and the History of the Book) exemplified this challenge and its benefits. As a result of intensive, cross-team work, the collection was successfully used as part of a blended approach to teach the courses alongside livestreamed sessions. Tutors described these as ‘almost as good as being in the room’ with the material and curator, the traditional method being impossible to deliver during the pandemic.

The rapid implementation of MDC responded to the need for digital access to collections but also changed the way we consider digital Special Collections. As well as ensuring that images and metadata are as open as possible and available for reuse, we are seeking to enable research tools to work with the system. These include georeferencing our map collection, exploring ways in which TEI metadata and transcriptions could be mined for data and innovative uses of IIIF images.

With MDC now a core part of our digital offer, we can provide researchers with a way to develop and enhance their outputs from a position of confidence and collaboration without essential access to physical collections. MDC has created the mechanisms and relationships for the Library to be recognised both as a partner in stimulating research, and a pioneer in the creation, use and sharing of unique digital collections because of conditions and demands imposed by the pandemic.


Jane Gallagher, Head of Digital Special Collections and Services
Ian Gifford, Head of Digital Development
Charlotte Hoare, Manchester Digital Collections Content Coordinator
Rachel Kirkwood, Collection Development Manager

Reference: Gallagher, J., Gifford, I., Hoare, C., & Kirkwood, R., (March 2021), Case study: Manchester digital collections. Research Libraries UK.

[2] Bow in the Cloud’ anti-slavery collection, Petrarch Collection’, Photo Jewellery’, Hebrew Manuscripts