Please provide your institutional context and discuss why you decided to develop VRR and/ or VTS services.

The Huntington’s research library closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Following several months of closure with no opening date on the horizon, longtime and new researchers began inquiring about access to the collections. As a special collections library, our mission is to support primary research, and we were looking to create a reading room-like service that would be a better alternative to requesting mass quantities of reproductions. After experimenting with several document cameras, the Reader Services staff created a new pilot service called the “Virtual Reading Room” which launched officially on November 1, 2020. The service allows all researchers to gain access to our rare materials remotely through a scheduled, one-hour online session using a high-resolution document camera and videoconferencing software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. During the session, participants are allowed to view one rare book or one box of manuscript materials. A virtual reading room appointment is much like a visit to the physical reading room. It is not a research consultation with a subject expert; but rather a service to view rare materials remotely. Even though our reading room physically opened to readers on July 1, 2021, we continue to offer the service and almost 200 individual researchers have used it.

If you are already offering VRR and/ or VTS services, please describe what takes place before, during, and shortly after a ‘typical’ session (e.g. engagement with users, delivery of the session, feedback gathering). If you are currently planning to offer such services, please discuss how you envisage a ‘typical’ session.

Researchers request an appointment to “visit” the Virtual Reading Room through our online request form or a member of the Reference team may suggest a VRR appointment during a reference transaction. Staff make the appointment and pages materials for the session. Awkward, fragile, or oversize items can be difficult to accommodate. We do not turn our cameras on and follow the preferences of the researcher for communication during the session – voice or chat. After a brief introduction to the session and the camera software, we usually mute ourselves, so the researcher can focus on the object(s). During the session, instruct staff to turn pages, capture images, and zoom in/out through the chat feature or by voice. They are invited to complete a survey at the end of each visit. Almost all feedback has been positive, and the service has been used by researchers locally, nationally, and abroad. Although the service is available to all researchers, we have created a VRR user profile for remote researchers which has been beneficial to requesting and analytics.

Please discuss how the development and offering of VRR and/ or VTS services intersects or will intersect with other services and practices in your institution (e.g. digitisation, content creation, cataloguing).

At present, our main goal is increasing availability of the sessions to provide another alternative for access. That said, VRR has also been a solid alternative to large copy requests. Few collections are described at the item level, and VRR allows remote researchers the ability to preview their contents instead of requesting reproductions which put more stress on the materials and would take more effort an time than the length of the session to copy/capture. Turnaround times for requests for reproductions can take up to two weeks or sometimes longer depending how many requests are in the queue. One-off requests for reproductions, even if they are JPEG or TIFF files are very challenging to repurpose. VRR can help lighten the workload on the imaging studios and and lessens the archiving costs for reference images.

What are the benefits and challenges of developing and offering VRR and/ or VTS services (e.g. cost, skills requirements, impact assessment etc.)?

Our current service is very low-cost as far as equipment and learning curve. We use a consumer laptop and an IPEVO V4-K document camera (around US $190). The camera and its software are easy to use and require very little training. The sessions take place on Teams or Zoom. Our formula works extremely well for one-on-one sessions. We’ve discovered that Zoom works better for large groups or classes and gives you the option to use the webinar feature. We’ve hosted one virtual show-and-tell with a university class which was very successful. We have been accommodating about 5 individual sessions per week, so most of the impact is on staff who are covering another service point making scheduling tighter. Of course, it would be very challenging to accommodate the same number of researchers in the VRR as in the physical reading room; however, it has been consistently valuable to those who have used it. We are optimistic that the more the service is used and regularized, the more support we will receive from our institution.

Are there any lessons you have already learnt from planning, developing, and offering VRR and/ or VTS services in your institution?

We’ve learned that a VRR services does provide a quality research experience. Feedback from users has been exceedingly positive. One user commented: “It was better than a reading room! No travel, no expense… Thanks for making this service available to researchers!” The virtual reading room eliminates the most challenging barriers to access – traveling to the library. In addition to convenience, some users have made appointments in the VRR and later visited the physical reading room in person. Consequently, we realized that it can be an effective tool for reducing library anxiety. Researchers got a sense of what it is like to work in the reading room with a collection of interest to them before visiting. Although we have had researchers schedule consecutive sessions over a stretch of time, VRR is not the best solution for concentrated research in large collections.
The Virtual Reading Room (VRR) at the The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

            The Virtual Reading Room (VRR) in use at the The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to develop and offer VRR and/ or VTS services through their institution?

I would suggest keeping the focus on the quality of the user experience. My second suggestion would to think about how many sessions you would be able to accommodate in one month. At one point, we were able to host three sessions a day. Now that the reading room is open we host one to two. Lastly, keep thinking about how small encounters like a VRR visit can have big impact on the work of one researcher.

Finally, what do you see as the future of VRRs as bespoke research infrastructure, or what role do you think these services might have in the future? What is your vision for your service?

My vision would be to continue VRR and expand it. I believe that the costs (economical, physical, environmental) to travel to a library are prohibitive to many. Like telehealth services, VRR offers an effective way to provide library services, such as a reading room visit from a distance. VRR connects researchers to the rare materials they need more quickly and conveniently than planning a visit to the library especially if the library is at a significant distance. I am also encouraged that VRR can be an important tool for reducing library anxiety and can improve the quality of the research experience when the researcher comes onsite. I am especially hopeful that we can integrate the service with Aeon using the appointments feature available in the next release.


Anne Blecksmith, Head, Reader Services, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, California, United States

Relevant links:

The Library at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

The Virtual Reading Room (VRR) at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens