Blowing the dust off Special Collections

Guest Blog Post by John Hodgson

Mimas works on exciting and innovative projects all the time and we wanted Hub blog readers to find out more about the SCARLET project, where Mimas staff, academics from the University of Manchester and the archive team at John Rylands University Library are exploring how Augmented Reality can bring resources held in special collections to life by surrounding original materials with digital online content.

The Project

Special Collections using Augmented Reality to Enhance Learning and Teaching (SCARLET)

SCARLET addresses one of the principal obstacles to the use of Special Collections in teaching and learning – the fact that students must consult rare books, manuscripts and archives within the controlled conditions of library study rooms. The material is isolated from the secondary, supporting materials and the growing mass of related digital assets. This is an alien experience for students familiar with an information-rich, connected wireless world, and is a barrier to their use of Special Collections.

The SCARLET project will provide a model that other Special Collections libraries can follow, making these resources accessible for research, teaching and learning. If you are interested in creating similar ‘apps’ and using the toolkit created by the team then please get in touch.

SCARLET Blog: http://teamscarlet.wordpress.com/

SCARLET Twitter: twitter.com/team_scarlet

The Blog Post

Blowing the dust off Special Collections

The academic year is now in full swing and JRUL Special Collections staff are busy delivering ‘close-up’ sessions and seminars for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

A close-up session typically involves a curator and an academic selecting up to a dozen items to show to a group of students. The items are generally set out on tables and everyone gathers round for a discussion. It is a real thrill for students to see Special Collections materials up close, and in some circumstances to handle the items themselves. The material might be papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt, medieval manuscripts, early printed books, eighteenth-century diaries and letters, or modern literary archives: the range of our Special Collections is vast.

Dante Seminar

Dr Guyda Armstrong shows her students a selection of early printed editions of Dante.

From our point of view, it’s really rewarding and enlightening to work alongside enthusiastic teachers such as Guyda Armstrong, Roberta Mazza and Jerome de Groot. The ideal scenario is a close partnership between the academic and the curator. Curators know the collections well, and we can discuss with students the materiality of texts, technical aspects of books and manuscripts, the context in which texts and images were originally produced, and the afterlife of objects – the often circuitous routes by which they have ended up in the Rylands Library. Academics bring to the table their incredible subject knowledge and their pedagogical expertise. Sparks can fly, especially when students challenge what they are being told!

This week I have been involved in close-up sessions for Roberta Mazza’s ‘Egypt in the Graeco-Roman World’ third-year Classics course, and Guyda Armstrong’s ‘Beyond the Text’ course on Dante, again for third-year undergraduates. Both sessions were really enjoyable, because the students engaged deeply with the material and asked lots of questions. But the sessions also reinforced my belief that Augmented Reality will allow us to do so much more. AR will make the sessions more interactive, moving towards an enquiry-based learning model, where we set students real questions to solve, through a combination of close study of the original material, and downloading metadata, images and secondary reading, to help them interrogate and interpret the material. Already Dr Guyda Armstrong’s students have had a sneak preview of the Dante app, and I’m look forward to taking part in the first trials of the app in a real teaching session at Deansgate in a few weeks’ time.

For many years Special Collections have been seen by some as fusty and dusty. AR allows us to bring them into the age of app.

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