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UCL Special Collections


Updates from one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK


Innovating for online teaching, events and public engagement

By Tabitha Tuckett, on 12 August 2020

Parts of this blog also appear in a post on the UCL Teaching And Learning blog


How do you teach the materiality of rare books, manuscripts and archives without the materials themselves? That was the challenge facing Special Collections’ staff when, at just a few days’ notice, academic activities suddenly moved online two weeks before the end of Term Two, just when students’ deadlines were looming.

Special Collections ordinarily runs roughly 50 classes a year, embedded across the University’s curricula and involving up-close encounters with physical collection items for over 1,000 students. Add to those a further 50-odd events a year supporting academic research and public engagement, from conferences to workshops to festivals. With getting up-close to most things – collections or humans – suddenly cancelled, we faced an innovation challenge, and had a lot of collaborators and participants to contact very fast in those first few days.

Student coursework

Our immediate challenge was students’ assignments. Over the past eight years, the Academic Support Team at Special Collections has worked with academics to develop modules that require in-depth study of our unique collections. Now, students needed to finish their coursework at a distance.

Impressively, many were already well acquainted with the features that made their chosen items unique, such as this Early Modern hedgehog:

Hedgehog doodle under the printer's details on the title-page: 'Imprinted .. at the signe of the hedg-hogge'

Title-page from Castiglione, transl. Thomas Hoby, The Covrtyer (1561). UCL Special Collections, STRONG ROOM CASTIGLIONE 1561 (2)

But as enquiries arrived about items not yet digitised, we worked with students to re-frame their essay or dissertation questions so that work could be completed to a high standard despite our reading rooms being temporarily closed. For those working on printed material rather than archives, our rare-book cataloguers also searched for online images of similar features in other institutions’ collections – bindings, annotations, scripts, bookplates, printers’ marks – or images of other copies as close to the same imprint as possible – not an easy task for hand-printed books, which are each unique. This was a new area of collaboration between Special Collections’ Academic Support, Rare Books, and Retrospective Cataloguing teams, and sharing expertise greatly increased the speed at which we could get responses out to students who were working to coursework deadlines.

Digital images

In the process, we learnt a lot about the limitations of many institutions’ platforms for digitised special collections. It is often surprisingly difficult, for example, to discover which copy, and whose, you are looking at, let alone find your way to the full catalogue record for the physical original.

So our Digitisation Team, while waiting to be able to access the physical collections to photograph more items in full, have pulled together as many existing single images of our own collections as possible. Starting with rare books to supplement our existing Digital Collections, they are uploading more images every day to a new rare-books area of our Digital Collections, complete with collection descriptions lower down the page. We’re aiming, where we have them, to include images of features often omitted on other sites, such as bindings, annotations and provenance marks: anything that enhances the sense of the three-dimensional materiality of our items.

Meanwhile the cataloguers are checking that the metadata for our images matches that on our catalogues. Crucially, they are adding a link from the library catalogue record of the physical original through to the digital images. See, for example, four images from this book of maps and images of Shoreditch, now available from the catalogue record for UCL’s copy of the physical original.

map of Shoreditch

Map from Shoreditch And The East End by Walter Besant (1908) LONDON HISTORY 1908 BES

Preparing for Connected Learning

Next we needed to find ways of fitting our summer and autumn programmes into UCL’s plans for online learning. Most of our activities involve object-based learning, so to prepare asynchronous resources, we needed both digital images and ways of allowing students and participants to explore our collections in three dimensions. We also needed to develop online forms of live interaction. This is needed both to provide engaged learning for our taught-course students, and because our public audiences expect our online-events offering to match those of other institutions, including museums’ and other organisations’ public-workshop series.

After extensive software testing, we found ways for students to join events with a second camera in order to show books and archives live. We hope to use our own visualisers to teach with our collections, even if students are logging on remotely, and to confirm with researchers and academics which features of an item need high-quality digitisation for their work. I secured access to UCL-supported software for recording videos with a half-and-half split screen, to compare, for example, a manuscript and its transcript, or two similar printed title-pages. Our exhibitions staff has started creating videos to bring our physical exhibitions to life online.

To make all of these resources, tools and events available to our students and academic partners, I secured a Moodle site for Special Collections for which we can set an access key for each group of users. That means our future suite of resources can be re-used, in different combinations and with different contextualising information, across the many modules and courses we support, saving us time. It also means we can use UCL-supported software such as Blackboard Collaborate to run live events. We’ve developed online booking and feedback forms. Finally we’ve arranged training for the whole team, and access to courses on UCL’s Connected Learning strategy.

Launching our online teaching and events programmes

All that remains now is to work with our academic partners to agree how we can support each module and academic project, and begin to prepare and trial events and resources. It has been extremely hard work, and personally I’d like to thank the Academic Support Team and the rest of our colleagues for adopting new ways of working and achieving so much so quickly.

But it’s been worthwhile when we’ve experienced how incredibly resilient our students have been. They have had to think thoughtfully and creatively about research and coursework while trying to secure flights home, changing time zones, moving back in with parents they’d hoped to move on from, finding their home city changed in the grip of the pandemic, or coping with the illness of family and loved ones.

This is a generation of students that is facing more challenges than most, so we were all the more impressed by the online exhibitions created by our BASc students (‘Attention’, for example, showcasing our Brazilian process poetry) and the overwhelming 64 applications for the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize  from students at universities across London.

A hand unfolding a paper envelope from Virgula magazine

Special Collections’ copy of Virgula, as shown in the online exhibition ‘Attention’, created by UCL’s BASc students

Launching this year’s Rare-Books Club online, I have tried to programme as many student speakers as possible, before they face the challenge of job-hunting in a recession. Students and experienced researchers in the series have presented passionately on collecting Black British publishing, exploring fictitious publishers in the 17th century, developing the terminology that 19th-century book-bindings deserve, how our catalogue can provide context for the books of the Galton Laboratory Collection, and many other topics. We have been overwhelmed by the popularity of these sessions, with audiences reaching well over 100 at times – far greater than we could ordinarily accommodate in our physical reading room. Although chairing and moderating such large sessions online has been new and challenging for us, it has also enabled us unexpectedly to reach new audience members from Asia, Europe, the US, and Australia, and we look forward to engaging with them further in the future. We have recorded the sessions, and are rapidly learning how to caption and produce transcripts for the often specialist language used. I hope to make these publicly available as a series later in the year.

Meanwhile, here are even more ways to explore our collections from your armchair:

More online exhibitions by BASc students:

Further viewing, listening and reading:

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