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UCL Special Collections: switching to online engagement and education

Dr Tabitha Tuckett and Vicky Price of UCL Special Collections discuss how they responded to the restrictions imposed by the lockdown to support students at UCL and beyond.

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11 August 2020

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 and public engagement activities suddenly moved online two weeks before the end of Term Two. 

Introduction to UCL Special Collections 

Special Collections normally runs about 50 classes a year, embedded across the University’s curricula for over 1,000 students. 

We also support public engagement and work with our local communities. Before lockdown, we were busy delivering:

  • an after school History club to Year 9s in a Waltham Forest school;
  • curriculum support sessions in schools in Camden and Tower Hamlets, and;
  • planning a large-scale teacher CPD event for a school’s entire teaching staff.

We were also expecting to be involved with a community history festival in Newham and two summer schools, one on-site in Bloomsbury and one at the Olympic Park.

Add to those a further 50-odd events a year supporting academic research and public engagement, from conferences to workshops to festivals.

Supporting our students with Dr Tabitha Tuckett

The Academic Support Team at UCL Special Collections work with academics to develop modules that require an in-depth study of our unique collections, says Dr Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian; Academic Support And Events. 

This is a very hands-on process as students closely analyse unique features such as bindings, annotations, scripts, bookplates, printers’ marks, provenance marks, such as this Early Modern doodle of a hedgehog. It involves up-close encounters with physical collection items in our reading rooms on campus.  

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Caption: Using unique collections, such as this early modern doodle of a hedgehog. Title-page from Castiglione, transl. Thomas Hoby, The Covrtyer (1561). UCL Special Collections, STRONG ROOM CASTIGLIONE 1561 (2) 

Digitising collections

Our Digitisation Team also pulled together as many existing images from our own collections as possible. Starting with rare books, they are uploading these to a new area of our Digital Collections, complete with crucial collection descriptions.

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. 

Our rare-book cataloguers searched for online images of similar features in other institutions’ collections or images of other copies as close to the same imprint as possible. This is not an easy task for hand-printed books, which are each unique. In the process, we learnt a lot about the limitations of many digital platforms. 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. 

Our Digitisation Team also pulled together as many existing images from our own collections as possible, and uploaded them to a new area of our Digital Collections, complete with crucial collection descriptions. Our cataloguers are checking that the image metadata matches with our catalogues. We’re aiming, where we have them, to include images of features often omitted on other sites, anything that enhances the sense of the three-dimensional materiality of our items. 

It has been extremely hard work, and personally, I’d like to thank the Academic Support Team and the rest of our colleagues for achieving so much so quickly.

Provoking thoughtful and creative answers

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 are 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.

Outreach with Vicky Price

Supporting UCL’s widening participation projects is a key part of Special Collections' public role, says Vicky Price, Head of Outreach, UCL. 

Exploring alternative means of engagement

As lockdown descended on us, some of this activity was immediately cancelled, but much of it presented an opportunity for exploring alternative means of engagement. After all, our school and community audiences might be stuck at home, but their need for learning experiences and stimulus remains the same.

Working with our partners

Our first step was to speak to our partners; we have been lucky that several of the schools with whom we work have been willing to try new digital approaches with us.  Given that the teachers themselves knew little about the long term plan for school closures and openings, we had to ensure we created resources and learning experiences that did not present any challenge in terms of access or compatibility with the school’s own remote learning approach.

We also learned very quickly that expectations for what young learners are able to achieve at home should be kept realistic; any more than a 20-minute task is too ambitious, and any assumption that pupils have anything more than paper and pen at home is less than realistic.

Converting projects to online learning

The first task was to ascertain which of the planned projects could be ‘converted’ to online learning.  Our after school club (called The Power of Print - a project that explores the history and influence of printing) and Curriculum Support sessions (one-off workshops that explore areas of the curriculum through our collections) both seemed promising.  

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Caption: Examples of resources used in The Power of Print. An English Bible was finally licensed in 1535 – a version by Coverdale. This is an edition that we hold at UCL (Strong Room B 1535 B4). 

Our schools had varying requirements and we found that the best option was to create videos that could be watched on YouTube. I quickly learned how to add videos and narration to a PowerPoint presentation and how to export it as an editable video file. This has ended up being the perfect route through which to produce quick, clear videos that include plenty of written and spoken information without having to learn a brand new piece of software.

As we approached the end of the The Power of Print with both schools, it became apparent that including some kind of live engagement alongside the asynchronous approach with videos was essential for deeper engagement.   

One school had set up weekly group calls with participants so that I could engage directly with pupils online (safeguarding measures in place), and the group produced brilliant work while maintaining good attendance. In contrast, the second school had not allowed for any direct contact between pupils and facilitator, which resulted in a very low ‘watch rate’ of our videos.

A challenge has been to manage the amount of time spent on creating these resources; our approach to delivering online learning is far more time consuming than face to face engagement.  A twenty-minute video might take a full day and a half to produce, so we have had to ensure we are maximising the number of groups that engage with a single video (we have a third school group lined up for the after school club). 

Preparing for 2020-21

We have also worked on 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, both to provide engaged learning for our taught-course students, and because our public audiences expect our online events to match those of other institutions, including museums’ and public-workshop series.

Our top tips for creating online learning experiences 

  1. Sound matters
    When making videos, don’t underestimate the importance of good sound.  Many learners will watch your resource using headphones, and they don’t want to hear strange and distracting noises!  If you only have an in-built in microphone on your laptop, seriously consider upgrading your technology.  Even a headset with a microphone will be better than that – but if you have the budget, a voice recorder is by far the best option.
  2. Don't be camera shy
    It is worth putting small amounts of yourself into the video, especially if your audience is young. Seeing your face and hearing your voice simultaneously will make a real difference in creating a rapport. This is sadly a real challenge when operating online, and anything that you can do to encourage learners to be interested and connected is worth it. 
  3. Don’t reinvent the wheel
    If you are creating online versions of lessons that you have already run in person, consider re-using PowerPoints or documents, adding narration and/or additional content as you go. This will save you so much time. Check what resources are already available online. We were able to use other institutions' digitisations to support our students.
  4. Live or pre-recorded?
    We have found that a combination of synchronous and asynchronous engagement is best for a young audience. Asynchronous videos or other online content allow learners to complete an activity in their own time (allowing for interruptions, replenishing resources etc), while synchronous engagement ensures learners feel the project is real and that they are accountable for their own involvement.  If you can’t reach your audience directly; you’ll need a very strong advocate doing this for you, so, in that case, ensure you have built a good relationship with your partner organisation.
  5. Test and Experiment with technology
    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’ve also found 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. We also trialled events and technologies before they went live.