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

The University directed that the Library should do as much as it could in lockdown to support staff, students and research. We wanted to provide as much of a service as we could to the staff and students at Leeds and also to all our external audiences while they were unable to physically access the collections; these include other UK researchers, overseas academics, authors, family and local historians, and members of the various societies and groups whom we partner with. Students needed material for projects, both individual and in groups, and there were also University-based research projects using Special Collections material that had paused, that we wanted to be able to support getting restarted. Also we wanted to help module tutors identify material that they could then get digitised to include in online teaching.

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 offer both VRR and VTS services. Event and Request records are created in our EMu Collections Management System, logging requester, material shown etc. VRR usually begins with a request email, with the Research Centre team offering a virtual consultation as the best way to answer queries. Consultations are limited to an hour, and are pre-booked. Sessions use Teams or Zoom, and the screen is shared with the researcher. Initially we used webcams and tablets, but now use desktop visualisers. The team member wears a headset for discrete and clear discussion with the researcher. As well as showing material and page turning, sessions involve consulting the catalogue, advising on related material, rights, handwriting etc. Sometimes the team will refer queries on to archivists or curators.

VTS is similar, with an initial discussion with the academic as to what material to show. Sessions take place in Teams or Blackboard Collaborate. The sessions are interactive as appropriate – the team member will turn pages and answer questions as directed by the tutor or students. Again these sessions were originally delivered using webcams or tablets, but will now be delivered with visualisers. We have also created videos introducing Special Collections & Galleries, or showing how to use the catalogue, to use in teaching sessions.

Feedback from both services is gathered verbally by the team member, and logged in the EMu CMS records. The Research Centre team also produce a regular digest of sessions delivered and feedback received, to allow us to scan for research trends and pick up on any improvements.

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).

We are currently building new teaching spaces so physical research space is limited; we anticipate a high demand for VRR and VTS services until the end of the calendar year. We intend that VRR and VTS will then be part of our core offer, alongside physical research spaces, digitisation and copying. In particular we want to maintain the VRR to allow remote access for researchers who would have difficulty visiting – e.g. those with mobility challenges or overseas researchers. VTS will continue as our new teaching spaces will be equipped for multi-mode teaching, so there will be options for tutors to have students physically present and / or online. Material in high demand for consultation will be assessed to see if digitisation or catalogue enhancements would be appropriate. Material that is in demand but is too fragile to be handled under a camera can be put forward for conservation attention.

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

Benefits: upskilling of staff; increasing the service reach and impact for those who cannot visit; increased interaction with researchers; team developing detailed collections knowledge; researcher potentially gets more context around what they’re looking at. For VTS, potential reach to greater number of students (and a more equitable experience as everyone gets the same view of the material); option to record contributions so they can be re-used, or stills taken for later use by students; potentially greater uptake from tutors who don’t want to visit; breaks down the physical barriers of using an archive – overcomes student threshold fear.
Challenges: staff resource to fully run the service, particularly the time before and after a session; need for training and equipment investment; technology instability can disrupt sessions – and not everyone has the same quality broadband – potentially exclusive of those in technology poverty; dilution of the experience – “it’s not the real thing” and lack of ability to convey physicality of features such as binding, paper quality.

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

Be aware of the format strengths/weaknesses. Record sessions / take photos so a user can refer to them later. Speak to the user beforehand to get an idea of what they want. Give yourself enough space to swap items being looked at and be aware of how much you can realistically look at in the time.

Ensure VRR and VTS are booked in advance and delivered by staff who aren’t trying to deliver other services at the same time; allow time around the session for prep, retrieval, and then shelving and updating session record; good record-keeping of sessions delivered and material requested. Review – be guided by your team if they suggest tech or set-up improvements, and pay attention to user feedback. Make sure it’s clear staff are engaged in a consultation or they have a discrete space to do it from so they don’t get interrupted.

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

See it as an addition to your service, not a replacement. Scope it properly first and consider the resource implication, particularly time around the actual sessions. An effective VRR can be delivered using basic kit which you may already have as part of reading room or studio equipment, e.g. camera stand, desk lights. Don’t be afraid of a bit of trial and error – you can manage user expectations of a service under development.

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? 

I think virtual services will become part of core offers, if they haven’t already – the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already gaining traction, and researchers are coming to expect it. Our vision is to have a service that offers a broad and flexible range of VTS options, so tutors can chose to deliver to a variety of audiences. We also want to extend this to public events, to have hybrid in-person/online audiences. VRR consultations will need to be balanced against physical visits in terms of what we can support with our resources, but we envisage them being part of our core offer.


Tim Procter, Collections & Engagement Manager (Archives & Manuscripts), Special Collections & Galleries, Leeds University Library