When Covid 19 hit, the University of Edinburgh was two years through a 5-year digital transformation programme to provide improved and new services to support digital scholarship and research. We had opted to focus on the backend infrastructure first, an unexciting choice from a user perspective, but critical to support not just the transformation required for the front-end, but also to develop a correspondingly robust, resilient and scalable system.

We had built up considerable momentum while improving backend software, data structures and workflow. Achievements included enhanced digitisation workflows, automated OCR of digitised material, and exploring automated extraction of metadata for cataloguing. This has led to the development of tools such as Whiiif [1, 2] and Editor (Enhanced Discovery with Integrated Toolkits and Optical Recognition) which has just been launched. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic caught us just as we were planning projects to improve the front-end. Work did continue, but was disrupted in all the ways now familiar to us, including the furloughing of some staff due to caring responsibilities. Progress slowed, but we also experienced increased demands to support other services. We had to redesign our services to provide Click and Collect and Scan and Deliver, and switch these on and off as required to support evolving Government Guidelines. 

The changes we had advocated for so long improved access to collections and provision to support digital scholarship and research were now recognised as critical. However, these changes were also needed “right now”, well ahead of their planned delivery. We took stock and prioritised certain projects. In particular, we decided that we could no longer manage without an online exhibition platform especially as physical exhibitions are currently still not possible. 

We have just brought in a digital agency Coapp to help us deliver this particular piece of work. We were lucky in that additional external funding was identified to support this. The long-term aim is for all physical exhibitions to have an accompanying digital ‘exhibition’ or in some cases just to have digital exhibitions. These digital exhibitions will provide a long lasting record of the research and outcomes that are available for a wide variety of audiences which can also be integrated into teaching – an element that a number of academic staff are increasingly interested in.  

Meanwhile, the effort to increase our digitisation capacity is paying off. Our workflows are now more efficient and we estimate (will test this once we’re fully operational and back on site) that we can get XXXX more images online  with the same staff resource. We have been able to launch our first two Collections as Data. More is to come; the pandemic has validated our digital transformation programme and the opportunities we identified around digital research, though as ever the timing is not quite right.


Kirsty Lingstadt, Head of Digital Library, Deputy Director Library & University Collections

Reference: Lingstadt, K., (March 2021), Case study: University of Edinburgh – Timing is Everything! Research Libraries UK.