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

The Special Collections Division of the University of St Andrews Library is now merged with Museum Collections as part of the Libraries and Museums of the University. These comments relate to the Special Collections Virtual Teaching Room service. Although we have previously provided access to collections through the use of a visualiser, this has been occasional and can’t really be called a VRR setup, although we hope to develop that aspect in future. The provision of remote mediated access to collections has however become the norm in our teaching. The Division is heavily involved in the support for, and direct delivery of, teaching with archival and printed collections for both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the University. The context for this case study is team-teaching which has developed over a number of years in partnership with an academic colleague in English, History and Medieval Studies in the provision of core modules in Palaeography, Codicology and Manuscript Studies. The visualiser was originally simply intended to enable the projection of an image of an item onto a screen to enable all students present to have the same view, and to facilitate close focus on particular features.

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.

A ‘typical’ session embeds the visualiser as core equipment used during a taught class where students are either present or, during lockdown, remote from the University through a Teams session. The initial conversation between curator and academic devises the parameters of the session, identifying the learning outcomes and the added value that the presence of collections items bring to a class, Careful selection is made so that, if possible, one original can be used to illustrate multiple points. This reduces wear and tear on originals and the added stresses of delivery to a remote teaching room. The planning session would normally involve selection of the best item from a number of possibilities, and the identification of relevant sections or pages for use in class. The material is delivered to the teaching space for handling by the curator. The visualiser was integral to in-person sessions pre-pandemic, to allow the projection and magnification from the original to enable all students to see an original, which is then also made available for them to see in reality. The projection from the visualiser is made onto a whiteboard. This has proved invaluable as it allows the teacher to write on the image and to point out palaeographical features and engage very closely with the image at close focus. The impact of the presence of original resources in class is frequently mentioned in Module Evaluation Questionnaires, and we plan to embed a specific question on this in future. Using a visualiser has become the norm.

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).

Virtual teaching using a visualiser has helped to inform decisions about what to digitise. It has helped curators to prioritise which full digital surrogates are created to enable use after class and in assignment context. The human-mediated engagement with an original is thus supplemented and underpinned by high quality digital provision. The Division has upgraded the embedding of images within catalogues through a migration of the catalogue. The development of the front-end of the website, which now hosts both catalogue and surrogate images using IIIF, has transformed our engagement with the digital. Processes for creation of metadata for digitised content have had to be flexible and agile during lockdown when access to collections was sometimes impossible. The wider challenges of data migration and catalogue systems upgrade subsist along with the need to ensure discoverability of new material acquired for teaching. Additional demands on staff time is challenging to resource.

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

Virtual Teaching Services have grown organically and integrally within the normal delivery of in-person classes, using the magnification ability of the visualiser to enable a group of students to get close-up views of an original item simultaneously. The visualiser has been used during hybrid classes during lockdown with MS Teams and in pre-recording sessions in Panopto, allowing us to adhere to the University norm. The main challenge has been finding staff with both confidence in using the equipment and curatorial expertise, and in getting reliable enough equipment so that visualiser use can be built-in to the sessions. The standard University classroom build now includes a visualiser. The cost of an overhead camera was recently approved as an extension of the service, having had proof of concept using smaller equipment, to enable the capture of large format material. The impact of visualiser use is not disaggregated from general feedback on teaching with collections.

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

VTS is an excellent way of raising the profile of the curator as handler of the material, enabler of a session and as team-teacher. The existing synergy between curator and academic on our team-taught palaeography modules was extended through the embedding of original items in class from which students are taught. The ability to project onto a white board has become an essential teaching tool, much missed while we were out of our normal teaching space, after the introduction of social distancing. The virtual image captured through the visualiser can be written on by the teacher and salient features pointed out. This immediate engagement with the text is also available to students, who come up to annotate the image in answering questions. Curators learn a lot from academic colleagues by participating in VTS. The original items need to be in excellent condition to enable such use and involves our conservator.

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

Have a go and don’t feel you need to have the most expensive equipment: it’s worth experimenting. The ability to use a visualiser to enable as-live mediated engagement with an original for those who are not present gives the remote student the opportunity to get some way towards the experience of engaging with real sources in class and is a good thing! Although you don’t necessarily need IT support, their encouragement can help build self-confidence. The ability to have collections-focussed conversations with academic colleagues and to enable wider audiences to engage with collections are really positive opportunities.


Rachel Hart, Senior Archivist, University of St Andrews