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

The Special Collections Reader Services team at the University of Manchester Library are based across two reading rooms at two library sites. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, researchers travelled to one of these reading rooms to view any non-digitised material from the collections in person. When plans started to be made for reopening the reading room at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library (Rylands) in a safe way, it was clear that we would need to restrict the number of researchers we could allow into the reading room to allow for social distancing. There were also many researchers who would not be able to travel into Manchester city centre due to travel restrictions, health, or personal reasons. An innovative solution was required to enable access to the collections for these researchers. We already had a Wolfvision visualiser at the Rylands which had been previously used for face-to-face teaching sessions. Therefore, it soon became apparent that this could be an effective way to show material online to other researchers.

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.

We have been offering a Virtual Reading Room (VRR) service since late July 2020. We currently offer four one-hour sessions each day (at each site) and have so far delivered 235 VRR sessions. Each session is delivered by one member of staff. When we receive a request for a digital session, we first check that the material is suitable. We will check the size, the amount and the condition of the material. If it is suitable, we will then arrange a date and time with the reader. We will also ask them to fill in our online membership form, data protection and photography forms before their appointment and let them know that we will be in contact again around an hour before their appointment with a Zoom meeting request. On the day of their appointment, we schedule the Zoom meeting, retrieve the material and set up the visualiser. The visualiser is on a moveable trolley, so we can be flexible about where we set up. During the session we will guide the researcher on how to get the best view of the material on the screen and will assist them with any other technical queries including how to take screenshots. We will tell them to direct us to what they want to see. Once the hour-long session is complete, we will ask the researcher to return our photography form, if they haven’t already, confirm any future appointments and then end the meeting. We then send a short Qualtrics survey to any new VRR researchers to get their feedback on the service.

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).

The VRR is a useful service for researchers planning to order digitised images from our Imaging Services team. They can review material on Zoom first to confirm the digitisation requests that they would like to make. Since there is a charge for material to be digitised, the VRR session allows researchers to avoid ordering any images which are not going to be useful for them. John Rylands Research Institute researchers used the VRR to access research material when they were overseas and unable to travel or during quarantine after travel. Similarly, University of Manchester students made use of the VRR to complete coursework when physical visits were not permitted. It has allowed them to look at content and physicality of the material without needing to come to the reading rooms.

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

The key benefit is that we have removed a series of barriers in accessing our collections. We have delivered sessions to researchers across the world who otherwise may never have been able to see that material without great expense and time investment. Similarly, we have removed a barrier for those unable to come into the reading rooms due to health or personal reasons. In addition, the high-resolution visualiser enables researchers to see the material in fantastic detail, sometimes even better than with the naked eye. Importantly, VRR sessions also allow researchers to use their time more effectively and do preliminary research before they visit us. A challenge with the VRR is that it is not always a suitable option for all researchers’ needs, due to the size or amount of material they want to see. The technical skill level of staff and researchers is sometimes an issue. Less confident staff members have had difficulty when troubleshooting issues which arise and some researchers have needed guidance on using Zoom and taking screenshots, which can take up some time during the session.

The Virtual Reading Room (VRR) at the University of Manchester Library

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

Keeping the technology that we use as simple as possible has been key in getting the whole team involved in delivering the sessions and made it easier for participating researchers. We use a Wolfvision visualiser which is simple and intuitive to use. It is connected by USB to a laptop, and we deliver the sessions via Zoom. When training staff to deliver the sessions, it is helpful to emphasise the need to put researchers at ease. Researching in this way is a whole new experience and it is easy to feel a little uncomfortable. That’s why we take time at the start of the session to reassure researchers that we are there to be directed, that we are happy to do this and that they are welcome to take as much time as they need to look at each image. Keeping sessions to a maximum of an hour has also worked well. It is a good amount of time for both the researcher and the staff member delivering the session.

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

Try to visit, see or participate in some digital appointments from institutions already delivering them so you can get a feel for what is possible during these sessions. Get advice on whether the technology you are considering will be suitable for the material you wish to show. Thoroughly consider the costs and ongoing maintenance of the equipment to be certain it is right for your service. Get everyone involved in delivering sessions: staff members who were reluctant at first, now enjoy delivering sessions and get satisfaction from directly helping researchers. This one-on-one time with researchers has added to their knowledge of the material and has boosted confidence too.

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?

The VRR will remain a core service that we now offer as standard. The benefits of increasing accessibility are huge, and the feedback received has shown us that many researchers would choose a digital appointment over an in-person appointment even when travel is less restricted. There is no current plan to charge for the service. The VRR will become more closely aligned with the Virtual Teaching Space here at the Rylands, with the sharing of equipment more suited for oversized or three-dimensional material not easily viewed on a visualiser. It is hoped that a long-term physical space can be developed for all digital services.


Kate Miller, Special Collections Reader Services Co-ordinator, The University of Manchester Library

Susana Sanchez-Gonzalez, Special Collections Reader Services Co-ordinator, The University of Manchester Library

Relevant links:

The University of Manchester Library 

The Virtual Reading Room (VRR) at the University of Manchester Library