In 2015 Manuscripts and Special Collections set out to increase awareness and use of our collections among members of the University and the broader public. This followed a review of the section which identified ‘opening up the collections’ as a key priority. Manuscripts and Special Collections’ physical location, on an industrial estate, situated on an administrative campus with no students or academic staff, contributed to a lack of visibility of the section and its work. Increasing our digital offering was seen as key to achieving our aim of opening up the collections, breaching the location barrier, and engaging with audiences both old and new. We therefore embarked on an ambitious programme of public engagement with digitisation at the heart.
When we launched our renewed focus on public engagement, digitisation was already embedded into the work of the section. The majority of our digitisation work was focussed on our reprographics service and our exhibition programme. A Digitisation Technical Officer was employed on a part-time basis with assistance from an Archive Assistant. Following the review of the section a new ‘Academic and Public Engagement’ team was formed, with responsibility for raising the profile of Manuscripts and Special Collections and increasing the use of the collections. The Digitisation Technical Officer sits in this team, emphasising our focus on using digitisation for engagement work.
One of the first activities of the new Academic and Public Engagement team was to look at what public engagement work we were already doing and review why we were doing it, whether we wanted to continue, and crucially what we wanted to achieve by it. We also looked at new possibilities for public engagement.
For many years the core of our public engagement work has been our exhibition programme, so it made sense to start the review of our engagement work here. Manuscripts and Special Collections has its own dedicated exhibition gallery in the Lakeside Arts Centre, the University of Nottingham’s public arts venue. There are three exhibitions a year, each of which runs for between three and four months. Exhibitions are either curated entirely in-house by Manuscripts and Special Collections or are co-curations with an academic or occasionally with another local heritage organisation. Each exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events. The target audience for the exhibition programme has always been the general public.
Digitisation is crucial to our exhibition programme. Each exhibition is made up of a series of exhibition panels and exhibition cases. Around fifty items are digitised per exhibition for use as publicity images and on exhibition panels – crucial in relieving what could otherwise be a very text-heavy and colourless exhibition. Manuscripts and printed items are also digitised for virtual display in the exhibition gallery, as slideshows of images or as interactive ‘turning the pages’ resources.
The review of the exhibition programme highlighted its importance in raising the profile of the Section, but stated that we needed to capitalise on the Gallery’s location on the busy University Park campus. We also needed to find ways of extending the reach and life of exhibitions. This has resulted in a number of changes to the way that we do exhibitions, and in particular has increased our reliance on digitisation. Changes range from the relatively minor, such as introducing bespoke publicity (requiring additional digitisation) for each exhibition event, to much larger and more labour-intensive changes. We have introduced an accessibility guide for each exhibition to enable greater access to the exhibition content for visitors with disabilities. The introduction of this guide means that we now digitise all of the items that are displayed in the cases; a change which has increased our digitisation per exhibition by forty items on average.
As a result of the review our wider public engagement work is centred around the exhibition programme, making further use of the work that goes into exhibitions. Initiatives include partnering with the University’s Widening Participation team to host primary-school visits to the exhibition, using the digitised content in activities to introduce the children to the concept of archives and primary sources. The exhibition programme is now used as the focal point and springboard for our involvement in other events, from University initiatives such as the community open day, Wonder, to national events such as the Heritage Open Day scheme. All of this has helped to raise the profile of the exhibitions, and consequently of Manuscripts and Special Collections, and has helped us to position ourselves as experts within the University in public engagement work. One notable result is that we are now routinely approached by academics who want to work with us on an exhibition and events programme that can then be used in an impact case study for the REF. This in turn has led us to slightly adjust our focus away from public engagement and towards impact.
While the focus here has been on the exhibition programme and related events there are many other ways in which we use digitisation for public engagement. In December 2015 we launched our newsletter, Discover, which contains features on specific collections or items, information about recently acquired or catalogued collections, and news about upcoming events. Discover is illustrated throughout with images from the collections, many of which are digitised specifically for the newsletter.
In February 2017 we also published an iBook ‘Parchment, Paper and Pixels, Highlights from Manuscripts and Special Collections at The University of Nottingham’. This showcases some of the highlights from our collections and is very reliant on digitised images to illustrate the twenty-seven short articles on items from our collections.
A major step forward in our use of digitisation for public engagement has been the launch of our digital gallery, which went live in July 2019, and allows people to access digitised images from our collections. This digital gallery replaces a previous gallery ‘Historic Collections Online’ which was first launched in 2012 and ran on the Digitool platform. Historic Collections Online remained live until 2019, but it was no longer supported and after January 2016 no new content was added. The browse function had ceased working a number of years previously, so people could search but not browse the galleries – and often had no way of seeing what was actually there. Relaunching the digital gallery on a new platform had been a key aim of Manuscripts and Special Collections for many years, but we had failed to get the necessary buy-in from the University. We were eventually able to do this by tying it in with a larger project that was taking place in Libraries, and as a result the images in our new digital gallery can now be browsed and searched through the library catalogue, NUsearch, using Alma Digital.
We have high aims for our public engagement work and to help us achieve these we have made significant investments in our digitisation capabilities. Much of the imaging work is done using medium format cameras allowing high resolution and accurate capture. Studio equipment also includes a preservation book cradle allowing fragile volumes to be safely supported during imaging, and a slide machine to enable 35mm slides to be captured by camera. Flatbed scanners and digital SLRs are also used. We have recently acquired a Phase One iXG camera system and a Phase One XF camera system.
To maximise the capacity of our equipment and capitalise on the expertise of our staff we launched a Heritage Digitisation Service in 2016 aiming the service at smaller heritage bodies and museums who had the need for digitisation work but lacked specialist equipment and knowledge. As well as generating income this has also raised our profile across the region as digitisation experts.
While digitisation for public engagement is ongoing, we have been carrying out ad-hoc evaluation and have been able to reflect on some of the lessons learnt. Four years on from that initial review the exhibition programme continues to go from strength to strength. In 2018 approximately 19,000 people visited our exhibition gallery, compared to 11,700 in 2015, and 1,665 people took part in one of the twenty-three exhibition related events held. Digitisation remains an integral part of the exhibition programme and on average we create 250 images per exhibition. We have been gathering visitor statistics and qualitative feedback and have used digitisation to create feedback elements such as a wall mounted ‘ballot paper’ in an elections exhibition, where visitors were asked to vote for their favourite ‘candidate’ and explain why, and a map in an exhibition on weather, where visitors were asked to plot their own experiences of extreme weather. We have found that using features like this, and posing a direct question for visitors to respond to, means that we get substantially more responses than with our traditional visitors comments book. While it is too early to evaluate the success or otherwise of our new Digital Gallery initial feedback has been positive.
One problem that we have had to face concerns staff capacity. Having one part-time member of staff working in digitisation, with help from an archive assistant, caused difficulties as we increased both the amount of public engagement work and the emphasis on digitisation in our existing work. To an extent we have also been the victims of our own success, as increased awareness of who we are and what we offer has led to an increased demand on our services. We have also had to be mindful that there are requirements for digitisation outside of engagement work, including fulfilment of reader orders and the production of digital surrogates. One problem that we didn’t anticipate is that the increased workload has made it very difficult for digitisation staff to find time to trial new methods and approaches, while with projects such as an exhibition there is no opportunity to fail, which again has led to a lack of willingness to experiment. This is a problem that we continue to wrestle with and identifying ways of freeing up staff time to try new things is a priority. There have been successes though, and we were able to make a successful business case for increasing the Digitisation Technical Officer to full-time. The Archive Assistant role profile was also rewritten to focus on the digital.
Feedback has been sought from all staff in Manuscripts and Special Collections on the direction that the section is taking, and every year staff are invited to make suggestions for what the focus of that year’s work should be. Staff feedback has been largely positive, though there has been some resistance to the idea of increasing our focus on engagement, as it creates a tension with their desire to undertake other core work. This was something that we anticipated and that was to be expected as staff are asked to change their working habits. Going forward we need to continue to articulate the reasons for focussing digitisation on public engagement, and the benefits that this brings to the section.
A key lesson that we have learnt is to set ambitious targets for what we want to achieve and where we want to position ourselves within the University, but to be realistic about how much we can do at any one time. One goal that we have so far been unable to realise is to redesign our website, to streamline our content and make it more user friendly. While we see this as a really important piece of work it is also a huge task, as the current website has over 1600 pages. The workload will fall heavily on our digitisation staff, and so far we have been unable to resource this. For now our plans are to continue to embed digitisation work as business as usual and to spread it among more staff, so that jobs such as uploading new content to the Digital Gallery become routine, while we will continue to seek sources of funding and partnership opportunities that will enable us to embark on larger projects.
Hayley Cotterill, Senior Archivist: Academic and Public Engagement, University of Nottingham