At the start of 2020, the digital programme within the University of Reading’s Special Collections / Museum of English Rural Life team was characterised by an emphasis on digital public engagement; hardly surprising in a  museum-led department (albeit one with several archivists and librarians) with an unexpectedly large global social media following.[1] We were less well positioned to realise our ambitions for greater engagement with digital scholarship, a higher standard of digital preservation, responsiveness to developments in technology enhanced learning, and more e-commerce. The pandemic highlighted the need for rapid progress on all of these but an acknowledged legacy of under-investment in digital capacity had created a bottleneck.  

The switch to digital-only engagement across all audiences was rapid on one level, thanks to a pool of 150,000 digital assets, and new websites (plus a presence on Google Arts and Culture) ready to launch.  However, this came at the cost of increased transactional work to enable digital engagement and there was also no commensurate drop in the demand for creative digital engagement – audience demand for collections content presented in a humorous or imaginative way led to our tweets being viewed 79.7 million times from March 2020 to January 2021. The pressure was being felt in particular by those supporting scholarship: in collections based teaching for instance, 176 students attended sessions in the Autumn term (compared to 151 the previous year) but the staff hours committed trebled (from 49 to 169). This was the result of greater complexity and the demands of digitising over 500 items. The experience across research and public access services was similar. 

Procuring a virtual reading room (VRR) [2] in September 2020 to enable controlled access to high resolution content online reduced the transactional workload for digital access in time for the second lockdown. As a result we were able to meet the requirements for blended learning, respond positively to every collections-based teaching request, add new sessions and, crucially, enable follow up work using the VRR (including group work by students in different households). By February 2021, we began to extend the VRR’s functionality to support e-licensing of content and print-on-demand, further reducing the burden of transactional work.

These developments depended to a large extent on the genuine agility of library and archive staff and their ability to embrace change, and previous department-wide efforts to introduce agile methodologies and to encourage a positive digital culture fed into this. Crucially, the team combined strong specialist approaches, firm user focus and openness to cross-domain collaboration. Leading such a rapid digital shift is not straightforward and in a small department there is no time or space for disputes over professional boundaries, or for excessive caution. This underlying positive attitude – a collective willingness to change – proved decisive. 


Guy Baxter, Associate Director – Archive Services. University Museums and Special Collections Services, University of Reading.

Reference: Baxter, G., (March 2021), Case study: University of Reading – skills and leadership. Research Libraries UK

[1]  Arnold-Forster, K. and Baxter, G. (2019) Life before and beyond the ‘absolute unit’. Lecture delivered at Navigating the digital shift (DCDC19), Birmingham, 12 – 14 November 2019.

[2] based on Metadatis Epexio with cointent managed via an existing AssetBank DAMS