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RLUK has published a major research report exploring the development and delivery of Virtual Reading Rooms (VRRs) and Virtual Teaching Spaces (VTSs) amongst archives, special collections, and museums.

New Frontiers of Digital Access: The development and delivery of Virtual Reading Rooms and Virtual Teaching Spaces amongst collection-holding institutions presents the results from a major international survey of libraries, archives, and museums, conducted by RLUK in May-June 2021.

VRR and VTS services enable human-mediated, remote digital access to archival, special, museum and gallery collections which do not depend on digitisation. Through the use of live streaming via visualisers located within physical reading rooms and learning spaces, scholars, teachers or members of the public can view and digitally engage with an institution’s heritage and cultural collections, asking for these to be positioned and interrogated by a member of staff, to enable their research or learning.

Virtual Reading Rooms and Virtual Teaching Spaces are emerging services which have largely grown out of the coronavirus pandemic. Although a pragmatic response to the closure, or partial closure, of buildings during various local, regional, and national lockdowns, VRRs are becoming established as bespoke research services and VTSs as valuable routes through which archives, special collections, museums and galleries can engage with diverse groups through virtual learning sessions.

The report presents the experiences of 32 institutions which have created, or intend to create, VRR and VTS services and explores the impact of these and their potential contribution to original research and learning across a range of disciplines.

It explores issues in relation to the technological, spatial, and staffing requirements of these services, their potential scalability and sustainability, and the potential for collaborative and collective approaches between institutions in their development and discovery.

The report will provide the foundation for a series of events and cross-sector discussions, led by RLUK, to explore the continued development and delivery of these exciting services nationally and internationally.

Headline findings include:

  • Emerging services: A small but increasing number of institutions are developing VRRs and VTSs. These include major museums and galleries, research libraries, and smaller charitable and independent organisations. There is a mixed economy of approaches for developing and delivering VRR or VTS services, and institutions are developing solutions which fit their specific requirements.

  • Shifting status (VRR): VRR services were initially developed to offer remote access to collections for a small number of internal researchers or users during periods of national lockdown when staff were permitted to enter buildings, but users were not. They have shifted from being a pragmatic response to a defined challenge, to an increasingly established research service.

  • Shifting status (VTSs): whereas VTS services were initially seen as a pragmatic alternative to onsite teaching during periods of lockdown, these have now become more established within their institutions, both for supporting student learning but also widening participation and community engagement.

  • Diversification of audience: The audience for VRR and VTS services are growing and diversifying, extending beyond ‘institutional’ users. External researchers now represent the largest user group for VRRs and VTS services are engaging beyond an institution’s student population and are being used to support wider community engagement and widening participation.

  • Diversification of application: A greater variety of collections are now being displayed via VRRs and VTSs than was originally the case, demonstrating a cross-collection and format application.

  • Motivations and relationship with physical research: VRRs, in particular, represent a bespoke service to a relatively small number of users who are unable to view a collection physically or if their research question does not warrant a dedicated journey. The motivation for using and offering these services vary between institutions, as do their relationship with an institution’s digitised collections.

  • Staff / researcher dynamic: the delivery of VRR sessions requires a close working relationship between staff and researchers. They require staff to become more embedded within the research process as collaborators and this relationship is seen to be mutually beneficial in enabling the exchange of ideas and knowledge between researcher and staff member.

  • Requirements: A spectrum exists in terms of the technical complexity and resource requirements of establishing a VRR or VTS service. These reflect the intended use and audience for these services, and the sophistication of functionality required.

  • Sustainability: VRRs are a bespoke service which require a high level of staff support and engagement. Institutions are exploring how these can be made sustainable as buildings and onsite services reopen. This includes finding permanent locations for these services, purchasing new and tailored equipment, and dedicating staff resources.

  • Potential applications: VRRs and VTSs were created as pragmatic responses to the coronavirus pandemic in enabling remote access to collections during periods of physical restriction. Since their creation, institutions have begun to realise additional, unforeseen applications for these services.

  • Collaboration: these services provide collaborative opportunities between institutions around skills, knowledge sharing, and agreed standards for their use and development. Institutions perceive potential benefit in coordinated approaches to the development and delivery of VRR and VTSs and would be interested in a networked approach to support discoverability and interoperability.

Members of RLUK’s Special Collections and Heritage Network (SCHN) led an interactive workshop at this year’s Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference which explored the development and delivery of Virtual Reading Rooms and Virtual Teaching Spaces amongst collection-holding institutions.

Led by SCHN co-convenors Joanne Fitton (University of Leeds) and Daryl Green (University of Edinburgh), the workshop included discussions and demonstrations of VRR and VTS services at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester, and the Archives and Special Collections, University of Glasgow.