Virtual visits to the archives

The pandemic meant no access to archival resources in many institutions. This brought a halt to research as the vast majority of materials in archives is still in the original format. More is on microfilm, but much of that is only accessible within the institution.

There was/is an initiative from some of the more progressive institutions, mainly UK with a few from other countries, but none from Canada, seeking a technological solution to maintaining access. Research Libraries UK recently produced a report, New Frontiers of Digital Access: The development and delivery of Virtual Reading Rooms and Virtual Teaching Spaces amongst collection-holding institutions from which part of the summary and conclusions section is reproduced below.

“Virtual Reading Rooms and Virtual Teaching Spaces are emerging services which have largely grown out of the coronavirus pandemic. Although a pragmatic response to the closure, or partial closure, of buildings during various local, regional, and national lockdowns, VRRs have become established as bespoke research services and VTSs as valuable routes through which archives, special collections, museums and galleries can engage with diverse groups through virtual learning sessions.

Both VRRs and VTSs benefit from relatively low technological thresholds and the majority of institutions have created these services utilising affordable hardware, readily available software, and pre-existing spaces. The establishment and growth of VRR and VTS services have benefited from the fact that onsite services (as of June 2021) are still operating at below ‘normal’ pre-pandemic levels. The ultimate scalability and sustainability of these services will only become apparent as onsite services return to a degree of normality. The growing number of such services, their creation outside of periods of lockdown, their application to a greater variety of collection types, and diversification of their user base, would suggest that VRRs and VTSs will continue to develop as valuable research and teaching services into the future.

Staff time and expertise are the largest attributable resource required for the delivery of VRR and VTS services. The success of these services depend much on the skills and expertise of staff, particularly their familiarity with the collection and ability to work closely with researchers. As a result, these services offer many opportunities to showcase the knowledge, skills, and expertise of library staff, and the valuable contribution that they can make to the research process, both as service providers and research partners. They also present opportunities for combining collections held at multiple institutions virtually (both nationally and internationally), without the requirement of digitisation, and offer new collaborative opportunities between researchers and institutions.”

The report notes such remote access is also a means by which institutions can address the climate emergency

“the seriousness of the climate emergency will also question the viability and ethical basis of international travel. These factors combined mean that research libraries, archives and special collections, and museums and galleries, need, as a community, to collectively consider alternative means of collection access through which original research can be conducted.”


One Reply to “Virtual visits to the archives”

  1. Hi Gerry: Gravenhurst (Ontario) Archives has been a wholly independent (i.e. not supported by, not belonging to the Town of Gravenhurst) volunteer organization since January 2, 1978. Our mandate is to collect, conserve and share the history of Gravenhurst and its constituent parts — West Gravenhurst, and the former townships of Morrison, Muskoka and Ryde. We have been digitizing items — documents and photographs from our collections since about 2003, with only one person involved in that work until this year. We provide research on our rich history free of charge to those who seek it, and we rely on happy clients who provide donations, as well as on the sale of four books that we have published, for all of our funding. We are unable to afford the high cost in money and time to place our database on the web with the result that it is available only to walk-in clients to the second floor of Gravenhurst Public Library where we have installed the database on several computers. What a shame that so much of our history in Canada (and the world) is unavailable because money and time are simply unavailable to so many Archives institutions. But we carry on, one day at a time… with more than one request for research per week, and ‘new’ collections arriving monthly.

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