The Reality of Virtual Reading Rooms

AWM’s March session on Virtual Reading Rooms (VRRs) proved to be popular and practical.  AWM was delighted to welcome not just members but colleagues from across England and Wales with an AWM record of 50 attendees for an online session.  Clearly this is a very current topic across the archive sector.

Christina Kamposiori, Executive Programme Officer at Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and RLUK’s lead on its VRR Toolkit kicked off by explaining the research RLUK had been undertaking since 2021 which had resulted in the development of the toolkit.  VRRs have been growing in popularity with higher education archive and special collection services  since 2020, initially encouraged by the pandemic driving remote access demand but post-pandemic there is a stable demand that continues to grow.  Interestingly, no participant could name a local authority archive service that was offering this service.  RLUK research identified that three main purposes of VRRs were for users to look at material in lieu of a visit (particularly good for overseas users), check references, and scope out material as part of planning for a research visit in person.  They are also used to run classroom sessions with original material.  VRRs have been popular with both internal (e.g. students, research staff) and external users.

Christina explained that both mobile and fixed visualisers have been popular with services, some using additional lighting as well.  She advised that the VRR should be set up close to collection storage to minimize issues around moving material.  Furthermore choose an operational set-up that works for the individual service i.e. a dedicated space using fixed equipment or using movable equipment so the space can be used for different purposes as required, VRR being just one of those uses.  Christina noted that the primary resources for running a VRR alongside the equipment is the space and taking time to train and support staff in this new area of activity.

Popular

RLUK research demonstrates that VRRs have proved popular with users and archive services.  They open up collections to new audiences, connect collections to users who cannot travel, provide more interesting work for staff and develop a more sophisticated role for staff who become more involved in the research process even to the point of the archive service being formally identified as a research partner.

Karen Robson,  Head of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Southampton, provided a really helpful overview of the realities of running a VRR.  The service uses a moveable visualizer with a conservation mat that is printed with a grid to aid placing of material, but no additional lighting.  It is used in the searchroom when the searchroom is closed to physical visitors.  MS Teams is used  (as the preferred technology across the University), which works well for institutional users but many private users are more familiar with using Zoom.

The service (started during the pandemic) has grown from one day a week to two.  Appointments must be pre-booked.  Appointments are one hour and up to three documents can be ordered – both have been identified as the practical limits for both user and staff concentration.  It is made very clear to users that this is not a private research consultation but simply an aid to viewing documents.

Practicalities

In terms of set up the RLUK VRR Toolkit has lots of succinct, practical advice.  Initially investment need only be a few hundred pounds (although visualisers can cost up to several thousand pounds) and require just a visualizer, laptop/pc and online communications tool such as MS Teams or Zoom.  Having a zoom function on the visualizer helps with bringing out detail and content that has faded.  Decide how the user and staff member will communicate, e.g. through chat or using a microphone.  Lighting is not entirely necessary . However, a good internet connection is.  Also, make sure joining instructions for users are very simple, include in the booking confirmation what material will be available and ideally users should be able to readily use the communications package such as Teams.  Be responsive to user requirements and think about how the user experience can be enhanced and not intimidating e.g. always having the same staff member, requesting feedback.

Recognise that VRR is not suitable for all material.  Depending on your visualiser the format may be too large (e.g. maps).  Copyright or GDPR may prohibit use, although the copyright situation is not clear as it is not clear whether this constitutes publication.  At the University completing a copyright declaration forms is part of booking process, i.e. that the session is for private study and research and screen shots are not permitted as per in the physical search room.  Also, the declaration requirements are put on the screen at the start of the session.

The impact on staff has been interesting.  Karen emphasized how important it is for staff to be well trained (including ‘dummy’ appointments) and have other staff available to provide both collection and technical support during a session.  It has enabled the service to pull in both archives assistants and reception staff, who have found the work interesting and rewarding as a departure from standard responsibilities, with archivists on hand to support rather than necessarily running the sessions themselves.  Furthermore, for staff it has proved a more engaged role than traditional searchroom service as they inevitably get more engaged in the research process through being alongside the researcher during their work, inevitably having to field more complex questions from users and also sharing their collection knowledge.  So a great opportunity to develop staff and add interest to their roles.  However, running a VRR is intensive in staff time and needs staff to be well prepared and supported by the service.

Investment and advocacy

Like any service, VRRs need investment and advocacy.  Investment only needs to be a few hundred pounds but do ensure upgrades are built into future budgets.  In terms of advocacy, experience has demonstrated that VRRs can be promoted through issues such as sustainability, inclusivity, greater collection accessibility, opening up new audiences, international reach, and providing online services.  The University does not currently charge for VRR services but this is something a service could look into.

Karen emphasised the importance of clearly identifying who are your target audiences for your VRR service so you can both tailor the service and target its promotion.  The University undertook a ‘soft launch’ to pilot the service before its full promotion.

For the University of Southampton implementing a VRR has been popular with users and demand continues to grow.  Karen has worked on a continuous mantra of ‘keep it simple’ and has taken her service to the point where it is offering a relevant, practical online service.

This session was part of Archives West Midlands ‘Digital Progress Programme’, which aims to support member services in developing all aspects of a digital archive service through training, workshops, lectures and shared learning.  To learn more about becoming an member of AWM or about AWM events go to the AWM homepage.

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